Frisk Frugt: “Biodynamisk Æblejuice Bringer Solen Indenfor Om Vinteren” (Dansktoppen møder Burkina Faso i det himmelblå rum hvor solen bor, suite, 2010)
I don’t know a whole lot about this band. I know they’re from Denmark, though, and they confirm my suspicion that prog rock never died—it just holed up in Northern Europe to bide its time for a comeback. Their name means Fresh Fruit.
"Biodynamisk…" is a little bit Kraftwerk, a little bit Zappa (minus the condescension), with maybe a little bit of Neu! or Cluster and a dash of indie rock. The band is the project of Anders Meldgaard, and the album title translates roughly to The Dane Meets Burkina Faso In The Sky Room Where The Sun Lives, a reference to Meldgaard’s recent trip to West Africa. Some of the rhythms that can be heard mingling with free jazz, motorik and prog on the album do sound a bit similar to some of the balafon and kora music of western Saharan Africa—think Mali and (obviously) Burkina Faso.
There is one previous Frisk Frugt record, a 2006 Lp called Guldtrompeten (I think that means Golden Trumpet?Some things aren’t too difficult to translate from Danish to English).
I’ve learned a couple key phrases in Danish (the first thing I learn to say in the language of any country I’m about to visit is “sorry,” which in this case is “undskyld”), and I’m off for the rest of the week. This blog will resume regularly scheduled programming on July 5th, or, if I’m in the mood and have the opportunity, sooner.
Svend Asmussen & His Arena Quintet: “Honeysuckle Rose” (Odeon Kpo 3516, 1940)
It’s going to be a short week around here, as I’m off to Denmark tomorrow for the Roskilde Festival. I’ve been to festivals before—Laneway in Melbourne and Sydney and every Pitchfork festival, plus the last Wakarusa held in Kansas, but this one seems to be something different entirely. There will be somewhere in the range of 120,000 people there. Should be interesting.
So, in honor of my destination, some music from Denmark today and tomorrow.
First, something old. Today, Svend Asmussen is possibly the oldest working jazz musician in the world. He’s still playing violin and gigging regularly at age 95. I’m pretty sure he’s only player of any instrument that can say he’s played with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Josephine Baker, Stephane Grapelli, Django Reinhardt, Lionel Hampton, Stuff Smith, L. Subramaniam, David Grisman and Jean-Luc Ponty. It’s a broad assortment of collaborators that reflects his longevity.
Asmussen was born during World War I, a conflict that mercifully spared his country, and in his teens he fell in love with jazz after seeing Louis Armstrong perform in Copenhagen. He didn’t consider his instrument, the violin, a jazz instrument until he heard recordings by Joe Venuti, but once that happened, he committed to jazz violin, bringing along some gyspy influences from his childhood.
He recorded his first sessions as a leader in his early twenties, and was one of Denmark’s top bandleaders when Germany invaded in April, 1940. Germany’s Nazi government had a weird relationship to swing, deriding it as a cultural pollutant on one hand and embracing it as a propaganda tool on the other, but in Denmark, it was the clear where they stood: the music was banned.
This did not stop Asmussen, though. He continued to perform underground, and even made recordings, like the quintet version of “Honeysuckle Rose” heard in this post. The song was written by Fats Waller, with whom Asmussen had performed in the 30s, with lyrics by Andy Razaf. Asmussen’s version shares plenty in common with Django Reinhardt’s brand of gypsy swing, and that’s Asmussen himself singing.
In 1943, German police arrested Asmussen as part of a larger crackdown on prominent Danes, and he spent most of the rest of the war in prison. In the post-War period, he became one of Scandinavia’s most popular entertainers, and for a time led an enormously popular pop/jazz/vocalese trio with singer Alice Babs and guitarist Ulrik Neumann called the Swe-Danes.
Asmussen’s career has lasted over 70 years. It’s amazing to think of how many other musicians and trends have come and gone in that span. I’ll be happy just to live to 95, much less to have the kind of physical facility and endurance Asmussen needs to keep playing his music.
Little bit late, but I was just listening to All Things Must Pass the other day. Do you know if that actually is Harrison playing guitar on "Art of Dying"? It sounds to me like one of Clapton's uncredited solos. Anyways, yes, one of my favorite double albums of the '70s, let alone Beatles solo. It's shocking that he couldn't (or wouldn't try to) get those songs recorded with the group.
Good question, and I don’t know the answer for sure—it very well could be Clapton. Harrison’s use of Clapton has always intrigued me, not least because Clapton wound up stealing Harrison’s wife, but also because Harrison was quite a good guitarist with a unique style himself. A lot of times when he could have played it himself, he let someone else do it. Case in point: the guitar solo on “Taxman” is played by Paul McCartney.
Alan Avon & The Toy Shop: “Night To Remember” (Concord 005, 1970)
The history of British beat music is a tangled web. Read about nearly any short-lived band that released just a handful of songs, and there will be references to at least a half-dozen other bands, most of which themselves probably released a handful of songs.
Alan Avon, who from what I can tell was born Larry Dutton, first played in bands when he was quite young in the early 60s, first fronting a group called Larry Avon & the Dominators, which included bass player John Askey. After this, at 14 he joined Larry Avon & the Presidents, with drummer Bill Honeyman. These groups never recorded, and Avon eventually quit music when he got married to his high school sweetheart.
Flash forward a few years to 1967. Askey and Honeyman are now the rhythm section of Sandie Shaw’s backing band, the Streamliners. When it’s not backing Shaw, the band plays out under the name Hedgehoppers Anonymous. Hedgehoppers Anonymous had some name recognition—they’d hit #5 in 1965 with a cheeky protest song called “It’s Good News Week.”
But that was a completely different Hedgehoppers Anonymous. The group that had the hit in 1965 was comprised of RAF ground crew members—they took their band name from the nickname for the “V” bombers they maintained. One tactic of the bomber pilots was to approach targets flying at very low altitudes, hence “Hedgehopper.”
By 1967, though, no original Hedgehoppers remained. The rights to the name had been secured by drummer Glenn Martin, who had himself joined the band after they’d had their hit. He was originally supposed to be a temporary replacement for the group’s first drummer, Leslie Dash, who’d had trouble securing a discharge from the RAF to continue playing with the band, but Dash couldn’t get his discharge and quit the group.
As the band’s commercial fortunes waned and the members went their separate ways, Martin kept the name alive with a new group of musicians. When this band broke up after a brief Scandinavian tour, he joined the Streamliners and brought the name with him. Martin was later dropped from the band and replaced by Bill Honeyman, but bandleader Tony Kaye (not the guy from Yes) kept using the Hedgehoppers name, and Martin never stopped him. So, you had a group called Hedgehoppers Anonymous touring the UK that had nothing to do with either of the previous Hedgehoppers Anonymous lineups.
John Askey left this third Hedgehoppers lineup in 1968 and called up his old friend, Larry Avon, to ask if he wanted to start a new band. Larry agreed and changed his name to Alan—the group they formed became Alan Avon & the Toy Shop. According to Avon, he was sometimes asked by fans in the group’s home base of Stoke-on-Trent if he was related to Larry Avon. He told people Larry was his older brother. Askey soon left the band to get married, but he was replaced, leaving a lineup of Avon, Maurice Cope on bass, Tony Todd and Ron Smith on dual lead guitars, and Roger Jones on drums.
The band recorded two singles, “Say Goodbye To Yesterday/Send My Love To Lucy” in 1969 (with Askey on bass), and “There Are Reasons/A Night To Remember” in 1970 (with Cope on bass). The two tracks really should have been flipped on that second 45, because b-side “A Night To Remember” is a cherry bomb of great heavy psych with lyrics about the sinking of the Titanic. The song was written by Tony Todd, and he and Smith are fantastic here—I love the changes in tone from the verses to the breaks. This is psych made during the shift to prog, and it shows.
Later in 1970, the Toy Shop broke up over creative differences, and here’s where the Hedgehoppers come back for one more round. In 1969, for no discernible reason, Decca’s South African branch re-released “Don’t Push Me,” which in 1965 had been the second single by the original Hedgehoppers. It took off, hitting #15, and the band was invited to play in South Africa—not only that, but they were offered a three-month residency at a prestigious nightclub in Durban called Tiles. So they went.
This must have been surreal. Here was a quartet of musicians—Bill Honeyman, Phil Tunstall, Mick Matthews and Colin Turner—headed to South Africa on the strength of a single recorded by another band. They were treated like rock stars from the moment they arrived. And to their credit, they delivered, acing their residency so well that it was extended. They even recorded a few new tracks.
And then tragedy struck when vocalist Phil Tunstall was killed in a car accident—this is an Apartheid horror story if there ever was one. It took ages for the ambulance to arrive, but when it did they couldn’t take him. This was the ambulance for black people. The ambulance for white people arrived two hours later, by which time it was too late. Similar things happened in the US right into the 60s, though in the many stories I’ve heard about it, white people are rarely the ones who suffer for it.
At any rate, the survivors retreated to England and split up. And then Decca went and released the stuff they’d recorded while they were in South Africa, so suddenly Bill Honeyman was getting calls to tour there again. The band decided to reconvene and go, and Honeyman roped in his childhood pal, Alan Avon, to replace Tunstall.
And that’s not even the end of the story. With Avon on lead vocals, the band recorded at least three more singles under the Hedgehoppers name—“A Song For Pete” and the b-side “Here’s To The Morning Sun” are actually pretty fantastic, and among the best things recorded by any band calling itself the Hedgehoppers.
In time, Matthews left the band and after a bit more recording and touring, they split. Honeyman died in a car accident not long after, sometime in 1972, and that finally ended the Hedgehoppers for good. Avon made a few more recordings for Philips in 1973, and released at least one more single, a song I haven’t heard called “Before I Get Much Older.” The rest of the Toy Shop have all passed away, but a lot of the people who passed through the Hedgehoppers at various points are still around. Original Hedgehoppers vocalist Mick Tinsley still performs and records.
Among the many people to pass through the Hedgehoppers were Lee Jackson, later the bassist for the Nice and Jackson Heights, and Vincent Crane, who went on to play in The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown and was the leader of Atomic Rooster.
I put together this 20-track introduction to post-Butler Suede for anyone who’s uninitiated (this may seem entirely superfluous to those of you in Britain, given how huge they were for much of this period there, but in the US, this is their least well-known period). It’s not meant to be some sort of authoritative guide—it’s a bunch of personal selections, and leaves out a number of big singles. A starting point. Original release info is in the mp3 comments field. Enjoy!
1. Every Monday Morning Comes 2. Trash 3. Everything Will Flow 4. WSD 5. Asbestos 6. Beautiful Ones 7. Cheap 8. She’s In Fashion 9. Filmstar 10. Untitled 11. Let Go 12. Together 13. By The Sea 14. Have You Ever Been This Low? 15. …Morning 16. Indian Strings 17. This Time 18. Leaving 19. Hi-Fi 20. Europe Is Our Playground (Sci-Fi Lullabies version)
The second of my two Suede reviews ran on Pitchfork today, and as I said in a previous post, with reviews like this there’s never enough space to talk about all the music as you’d prefer to. So I’ve chosen one of my favorite post-Butler b-sides to talk about here.
In a way, the b-sides from Coming Up—there are a lot of them—form a parallel record of the reconstituted Suede. Coming Up is bright and proud and deliriously superficial; the b-sides are much darker overall, more troubled lyrically and more atmospheric and in line with where the band had been musically. I love both, but if I had to choose just one set of songs out of the two, I’d probably go with the b-sides.
Ever since I bought Sci-Fi Lullabies back in 1998 (the copy that we have on our CD shelves today is not mine—my wife had the UK issue with the transparent double CD case and no “London” in front of the “Suede,” so we kept that one when we consolidated our collections), “Every Monday Morning Comes” has been one of my favorite Suede songs. As much as I like a lot of the music they made from 1995 onward, I’m pretty much a Butler-era guy as far as what I prefer from this band, and I think this song, along with a few of the other darker, thrashier b-sides from the era, appealed to me instantly because of that.
This has my favorite kind of Brett Anderson vocal—he uses his falsetto, dips down to his deeper range, and then goes for that nasal tone that defined the post-Butler era, all in one song. Meanwhile, Richard Oakes just tears it up on his guitar.
There is a peculiar romance to Anderson’s lyrics here, heightened by the swooning way in which delivers them. He really sounds like he’s watching the sky when he sings about it. And then there’s the chorus, drenching the reverie with frigid water.
I could have chosen other b-sides—“WSD” was my runner-up choice for this post, partly because I’ve always loved it when Mat Osman’s bass got to play a forward role in the band’s arrangements. And “Europe Is Our Playground” was right up there, too, though I prefer the re-recorded version on Sci-Fi to the original b-side version, which is the one they put on the reissue.
It’s been fun revisiting these albums. Latter-day Suede lived in this strangely candy-colored, decadent world that no other band really bothered with, and it yielded quite a bit of good music.
The Ventures: “Out Of Limits” ((The) Ventures In Space, 1963)
Ah, surfing and space, the two great pop music loves of the early 1960s. They make a nice pair, don’t they?
The Ventures were one of the quintessential bands of their era. Formed in 1958 in Tacoma, Washington, they came to define the sound of instrumental rock and roll in the next decade. The classic lineup of Don Wilson and Nickie Edwards on guitars, Bob Bogle on bass and Mel Taylor on drums made some of the most influential pre-Beatles rock and established the group as something of an institution—it still tours and records today, though much further from the limelight than it once did.
But seriously, this band was a commercial force in its day. From 1960 through 1972, they released 36 studio albums, all but two of which charted in the US. They’ve sold over 110 million records worldwide, which is the equivalent of every single person in Mexico, the world’s 11th most populous nation, owning a Ventures album (for comparison, the Beatles have sold something like 1.3 billion records worldwide, counting singles and LPs).
My dad had two Ventures albums. One of them was 1969’s Swamp Rock; I don’t remember the other, but I know I listened to both of them when I was a kid. That may be where I acquired my voracious appetite for surf music, or it could simply be the fact that this music had such a wide impact you can hear it all over the place without even trying.
Anyway, (The) Ventures In Space is a really neat album, and I recommend it to anyone who likes the sometimes cheesy adventurousness of Space Age pop. On the album, the band, sometimes joined by steel guitar session giant Red Rhodes, squeezes all manner of otherworldy noises out of its guitars—the album art even makes a point of saying that no electronic devices were used. Presumably they weren’t referring to amplifiers or the other devices they’re clearly using to alter the tone of their guitars (most likely just pre-amps, mic placement, tremolo, vibrato, overdrive and echo chambers; the only commercially available stand-alone effects pedal at the time was the Maestro Fuzz Tone, which can be heard on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”).
On “Out Of Limits,” they get some really nice distortion tones out of the guitars, and I like the freaky shimmer of the opening figure. This record opened the eyes of a lot of kids in the early 60s to just how many different sounds you could get out of an electric guitar, and by the time a lot of them were playing in their own bands, the possibilities were even greater.
I see a lot of sources that say this album was released in January, 1964, but as far I can tell from research, it was actually released in November, 1963, and first charted in January, 1964.
Don Azpiazú & His Havana Casino Orchestra: “El Manisero” (ft. Antonio Machín) (Victor 22483-A, 1930)
"El Manisero." "The Peanut Vendor." Type it out in whichever language you like, but "El Manisero" is one of the pivotal songs of the 20th Century.
As recorded by Don Azpiazu’s orchestra, the song kickstarted a worldwide rumba craze, a movement that placed Latin rhythm permanently in the minds and music of people on every continent. Except that “El Manisero” wasn’t a rumba at all.
The song was composed by Moisés Simons in 1928, and first recorded the same year by the Cuban vedette Rita Montaner, whose version became a hit in Cuba. Simons, born Moisés Simón Rodríguez in 1889, grew up in Havana, and would have been very familiar with the cries of the city’s many street vendors. Peanut vendors sold peanuts in long cones made of rolled paper, and Simons started his song with their announcement of their product: “Maní! Maní!” This is Spanish for “Peanuts! Peanuts!”
The rest of the lyrics are a pitch to buy the peanuts. The first verse goes, “If you want a little treat, buy a cone of peanuts from me,” and the second follows with, “Dear lady, don’t go to bed without eating a cone of peanuts.” That’s it. It’s very simple. This commercial exhortation is called a pregón. The foundation of the song is the son rhythm, which makes this a son-pregón. This is quite different from a rumba, but we’ll get to that.
Don Azpiazú was the leader of the orchestra at Havana’s Gran Casino Nacional. It was a white band, the only kind that would have been allowed to play at that venue, but it had a black singer in Antonio Machín. In early 1930, Azpiazú’s orchestra came to New York, billing its singer as the “Cuban Rudy Vallée,” and they were immediately well-received by New York’s large Puerto Rican and Cuban communities.
Machín, who had grown up dirt poor as one of sixteen children in his family, provided the centerpiece of the band’s show, emerging onstage to the song’s opening fanfare pushing a peanut cart and singing “Maní! Maní!” He improvised what became the big send-off, where he exits the stage singing, “Me voy” (“I’m going”), one last enticement to buy his goods before he leaves.
In his sprawling history of Cuban music, Ned Sublette quotes a non-plussed Billboard review of this routine, but this view seems to have been in the minority. The group recorded the song later that year, and in early 1931 it became a huge hit, selling very well in spite of the economic calamity of the era. The song’s publisher, which his licensed it from Simons in 1929, immediately began to aggressively market the song to other performers and orchestras, and three additional versions charted in the US in 1931, including one by Louis Armstrong.
Within the year, it was in the repertoires of orchestras from Paris to Japan, on its way to becoming one of the most performed and recorded songs ever. The rumba craze was underway.
Why rumba, or rhumba, as it’s often spelled in the US? Well, rumba, is a specific Cuban dance style. So is the son, the bolero, the guaguanco, guaracha and so on. But outside of Cuba, the subtle differences between these rhythms were complicated to explain, and so they all were lumped under the rumba, an appealing word that already had some currency outside of the Latin quarters of New York when “El Manisero” hit big, and had also been hot in France in the 1920s.
Rumba became synonymous with music that had any kind of Cuban rhythm. In Central Africa, it’s the term most broadly applied to Congolese popular music from the mid-20th Century. Most of what became popular outside of Cuba, though, is actually based on the son. Son, though, is a tougher word to port from language to language—it has its own meanings in English and French, and so it lost out to the more distinctive word.
Regardless of which Cuban or other Caribbean rhythm we’re talking about, though, it’s easy to hear it when it pops up in the context of Western music, because the rhythmic concept behind it is different from the rhythmic concept behind Western music. The reasons for this are complicated—read Sublette’s Cuba And Its Music to learn more—but essentially the difference is this: in Western music, harmony and rhythm are treated separately. You choose a beat and you choose a key, but you don’t choose them together.
In Caribbean music, you choose a clave, which establishes both the tonality and rhythm of your piece of music. There’s no requirement that any particular rhythm be played in a specific key, but the rhythms are built on cyclical patterns, played both on percussion and tonal instruments, so the key is necessarily established in tandem with the rhythm. The clave is sometimes referred to as a rhythmic key.
Of course, sometimes the rhythms are bent to fit our concept of the beat, but this music is quite deeply ingrained in rock, pop and jazz in Europe, North America and Asia (mambo was quite popular in East Asia in the 50s, and quite a few mambo-influenced records were made there).
Azpiazú continued to record and perform, though he never quite caught lightning in a bottle again like he did with “El Manisero.” Hardly anyone else has, though. He died in Havana in 1943.
Antonio Machín struck out on his own in the wake of the song’s success and got himself his own deal with RCA Victor. He settled in New York, and his quartet (later a sextet) recorded somewhere in the range of 200 sides before he relocated to Europe. During a brief stint in Paris, Moisés Simons, the composer of “El Manisero”, played piano in his orchestra. Machín lived out the rest of his life in Madrid, where he died in 1977 at 74.
For his part, Simons is one of the rare composers from the early days of the record business to make substantial money off a hit song. He reportedly made over a hundred thousand dollars in royalties from sheet music sales of “El Manisero”, a huge amount of money in those days. He too died in Madrid, in 1945.
Super Mama Djombo: “Julia” (Festival, Vol. 2, 1980)
Guinea-Bissau is a tiny country wedged between Senegal and Guinea on the West African coast. It’s a little bigger than Maryland, with about one and a half million people. It was once a Portuguese colony, and fought a tough war for its independence from 1956 to 1974, when Portugal’s Marcelo Caetano, the last ruler of the long, authoritarian Estado Novo period, was overthrown in a bloodless coup, and all of Portugal’s colonial holdings were put on the path to independence.
During the war, two major bands, Cobiana Djazz and Super Mama Djombo, had been formed, and most of their music was based on modernizing the traditional gumbe dance music of the country. In the hands of bands with electric bass players, gumbe became a quick, slippery rhythm that lended itself extremely well to supporting catchy melodies.
Super Mama Djombo was the longer-lived of the two big bands, primarily due to the death of Cobiana leader Jose Carlos Schwarz in 1977. In the band’s early days, Super Mama Djombo, which was named in honor of a local spirit widely respected among the country’s animist population, operated in a clandestine manner, in rebel-held territory. The milieu they became a band in informed their lyrics, many of which are songs of praise for the revolution and its leader, Amilcar Cabral.
"Julia" is an exception to their usual lyrical focus, though, and also is an exception to their usual use of gumbe-based rhythms. Instead, it’s a crystalline ballad, with scorching lead guitar by Adriano "Tundu" Fonseca, and a pained vocal—the "Julia" of the title is a deceased lover, and the song is written from the perspective of a man who has been heartbroken twice, once by her death, and again by a new lover who has left him. He is literally asking the band for help getting through the pain.
It’s haunting, and quite unlike most of the band’s other music. It was recorded at the same time the band made all its other recordings: in one marathon 1980 session in Lisbon that produced six full hours of tape, from which all of the albums released by the group during its original run were drawn. The drummer on those recordings is Ze Manel, who later became one of Guinea-Bissau’s most prominent solo artists.
Super Mama Djombo’s excellence was hard-earned. The members all voted on who was allowed to remain in the band, and if it was felt you weren’t keeping up with the rest of the musicians, you were out, no matter how much they liked you personally. Their relatively low profile owes more to their place of origin, a tiny country with little international profile, than to their music, which is on a par with Bembeya Jazz, Super Rail Band, Orchestra Baobab and the other great West African orchestras.
Super Mama Djombo have reunited and released some new albums in recent years.
Andrew Bird: “Cataracts” (Armchair Apocrypha, 2007)
Last night, I saw Andrew Bird at the Power Center on the University of Michigan campus. It’s a big sit-down theater, designed so that there’s not a bad view in the house, and Bird performed most of the set entirely solo, just him and his violin, glockenspiel, guitar, pedals and that rotating phonograph horn thing he uses to create a doppler effect on the loops of strings he layers upon one another on certain songs.
The sound was glitchy—every time he hit a low note on his guitar, it distorted—and the mix was a little weird. Actually, this is the first time he’s toured in a while, and the whole set was a little ramshackle. I’ve seen him a few times before, each time with a drummer, and those shows were a lot more focused and streamlined, but on this gig, he seemed to be figuring things out. Sometimes literally. He played five or six brand-new songs, and admitted up front that he was still working on them.
If that sounds like a disaster, well, it could have been. But this guy is so immensely talented and engaging that it wasn’t. Instead, it felt sort of like being in on something, the artist in the act of creation. Bird is a restless performer. We know that. He rarely plays any song the same way twice. I’ve got crazily varied versions of “Why?” piled up on my hard drive, ripped from YouTube and bootlegs and radio sessions and other sources, and they’re all insteresting. After playing the song yesterday, Bird jokingly apologized, saying “That was more for my benefit than yours.”
He was kidding, but there’s a kernel of truth in there. I get the impression that Bird is almost too smart and too preternaturally gifted musically to tolerate a predictable set. In order to entertain us, he had to entertain himself, too. He’s earned his way to this place—who do you know of that sounds like Andrew Bird? No one sounds like him. He left Chicago to live in a barn in the middle of nowhere, and he came back to us with a whole musical world of his own that he’d invented out there.
He’s stuck there now, and I wouldn’t really have it any other way, because that’s how you get totally unique records like Weather Systems, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, Armchair Apocrypha and Noble Beast (honestly, I feel like I’m not correctly on record about these last two, in spite of having written about them both).
Bird is easily one of my favorite musicians. I get frustrated when I hear people write him off as “too clever for his own good” and harp on the vocabulary he uses in his writing. This might be because, from what I can tell, Andrew Bird thinks about the world in a very similar way to me, and his tendency to see the science behind everyday happenings is something I share.
To my ears, no one else writes lyrics that get so effectively to the essence of why and how we are alive and what keeps us that way. I don’t know if Bird has some sort of religion he follows, but his lyrics don’t give it away if he does. He’s a humanist and scientist in his songs. I don’t believe in miracles in the divine sense, but “you’re what happens when two substances collide,” a line from “A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left,” better encapsulates the simultaneous improbability and inevitability of our existence than anything else I’ve ever heard.
I also don’t think anyone else in popular song is writing about biological processes, genetics and evolution with greater acuity than he is. This is the stuff that people call too clever, but I’ve never been able to figure out why it’s any less valid or affecting to sing about this stuff than it is to sing about love, anger or politics. We’re made of all of these things, after all.
I could spend days breaking down every little thing I love in his songwriting. Why a sequence like “do you wonder where the self resides/is it in your head or between your sides/who will be the one who will decide/its true location” means so much to me, specifically because it navigates around the concept of a soul. “Dark Matter” is one of my favorite songs, lyrically. It just seems to get something fundamental about the way the world behaves.
Not all of his songs carry that sort of profundity. Some of his words are put together for their sound more than their meaning. A literal interpretation of “Cataracts” is beside the point. Some of the words are even made up: not sure what a “scrumbled charcoal smear” is. But it doesn’t matter. Bird is using words like “catchwood,” “bracken and briar” and “coppice and chapparal” because they perform a phonetic and melodic function.
And the melody they function within is one of his most beautiful. That bit that goes “when our mouths are filled with uninvited tongues of others” two minutes and ten seconds in just absolutely slays me. And there could be some pretty thorny meanings in there. Is he being kissed against his will? Does he find himself repeating received wisdom and realizing it too late? Is he wondering how much of ourselves language that we necessarily inherit from others can possibly express? How many of these possible meanings ever occurred to Bird and how many are my own? Because I have others.
Anyway, on the evidence of last night’s show, he’s well on his way to another album’s worth of good material, and whenever he gives it to us, I’ll be ready for another trip into his world. Meantime, I’ll keep popping in for visits, often.
I spent a lot of my teens listening to classic rock radio, and every once in a while on this blog, I like to try and tackle a band I heard a lot then that’s found its way into the bad graces of most critical circles in spite of its enduring popularity (and in some cases, possibly because of its enduring popularity).
Bad Company certainly fits into that category. The band formed in 1973, with members who had all played in other successful British bands. Bassist Boz Burrell was fresh off a stint as the bassist/vocalist for King Crimson (he’s on their Islands album, which is a very strange record), guitarist Mick Ralphs had been in Mott the Hoople, and vocalist Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke had played together in Free, which of all those bands is definitely the one that sounds most like Bad Company. It’s not just the Rodgers vocals, either. The two groups had a similarly focused hard-but-not-too-hard rock sound.
Their debut album was the first one released in the US by Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records (Swan Song released the Pretty Things’ Silk Torpedo in the UK first). It was a massive hit, and it’s not a bad album. Some of the more boogie rock-oriented stuff (such as singles “Can’t Get Enough” and “Movin’ On”) hasn’t aged that well, but the spooky title track and creeping “Ready For Love” still sound fantastic.
And so does the album’s closer, “Seagull,” which is much less well-known than those other songs. Five of this album’s eight tracks became FM radio staples, but this one has managed to remain mostly hidden over the years (as has “Don’t Let Me Down,” which I think is another gem from this LP).
This song is definitely a type: the quiet, reflective, acoustic one that comes at the end and provides a sense of closure for the album. The loosely existential lyrics imply profundity more than they actually provide it, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Vagueness has been a chief weapon of rock bands through the ages, because it lets people insert themselves into songs and build on the kernels of meaning that are already there.
The Coasters: “Shoppin’ For Clothes” (Atco 6178, 1960)
Catching up here. Carl Gardner was the leader of the Coasters from their mid-50s origins all the way up through his retirement in 2005, when he handed the reigns to his son. He passed away earlier this week at 83.
I’ve thought a bit about what it means to be in the Coasters today. The group last recorded in the early 1970s, and has cycled through many lineups as a touring act since then. In fact, Gardner often had to police groups calling themselves the Coasters that had no connection to his act. If you’re the Coasters today, you’re a pure nostalgia act, performing for PBS fundraisers and on the casino circuit. It’s a living, I’m sure, but it seems like it must be strange, touring the country singing these songs that were hits in 1958 in places that have hired you mostly because you’re guaranteed not to bother anyone.
It’s a weird legacy for a group that was, back in its day, a pretty distinctive vocal quartet. They achieved oldies radio immortality with “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown in the late 50s, and recorded a bunch of other good singles, many of them built around the humorous interplay between Gardner’s high-strung leads and Will “Dub” Jones’ thick bass voice.
The 1960 single “Shoppin’ For Close” takes that interplay in a different direction, as Gardner goes shopping for a sharp herringbone suit that he can’t afford. The two talk through the deal over a skeletal backing (I think that’s King Curtis on sax). Gardner plays his part well—if I had to describe the character he played in the group’s comic song, I’d say he’s a little weaselly, grasping for respect he can’t quite command. Jones was his foil, the stern and calm authority figure that put him in his place.
The group moved past that interplay-based sound as the 60s wore on, and its last recordings, done in 1971, were even pretty funky. And then the Coasters became what they still are, a professional touring act. The lineup of Gardner, Jones, Cornell Gunter and Billy Guy was part of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s second class of inductees in 1987. Gardner was the last survivor from that lineup.
Paul McCartney: “One Of These Days” (McCartney II, 1980)
Today, Pitchfork is running a review I wrote of Paul McCartney’s McCartney and McCartney II, a weird pair if there ever was one. It’s funny, I was thinking of posting the lead song from McCartney II, “Coming Up,” but Rob/Ley Lines coincidentally posted the hilarious video earlier this week, so I’m going to go with this instead. (Do check out that video, though—it’s a whole band of Pauls, with a couple Lindas on backing vocals—I wonder what John Lennon thought of it, or if he even saw it. I’m aware that the song drove him crazy, and he found it impossible to get it out of his head).
This is the least typical song on McCartney II. Not many people are familiar with this album today, but to summarize, it’s basically McCartney’s synth-pop album, for better or worse (and there is quite a bit of both on the album). It’s a contradictory album, somehow ambitious and lazy at the same time, and there’s music on it that totally sounds like it was made in Brooklyn a year ago.
"One Of These Days," though is the only song on the album that sounds as thought it maybe could have been included on McCartney in 1970. It’s the sort of super-simple song McCartney didn’t allow himself to do often enough, maybe the closest thing he did to “Yesterday” in his post-Beatles career. As a closer for McCartney II, it has the effect of a palate cleanser, almost McCartney’s way of saying “it was all a dream.”
McCartney recorded the whole album by himself on new equipment (the outtake “Check My Machine” is literally him checking his equipment with a not-bad reggae tune), and I wonder if his inexperience with the gear if audible on this song. It certainly sounds, especially near the end, as though the tape is a little fast (as mastered anyway—it would have been slow during the recording). His voice doesn’t typically sound so pinched and high.
Still, it’s a lovely song, a rare instance of McCartney, on his own, just putting himself out there for us.
The Temptations: “No More Water In The Well” (With A Lot O’ Soul, 1967)
My last Undiscovered Motown post featured an album track by Martha & the Vandellas. Let’s stick with album tracks for this one, too.
Paul Williams was a founding member of the Temptations. He and Eddie Kendricks met as children in Alabama and formed their first group in Birmingham, a vocal quartet called the Cavaliers. They and Kel Osbourne, one of the other quartet members, moved to Cleveland in 1957 and became the Primes, ultimately relocating to Detroit, where they became a popular act. So popular, in fact, that they inspired a spin-off group called the Primettes, who would later become the Supremes.
When the Primes disbanded, Williams and Kendricks joined forces with the Distants, a group headed by Otis Williams (no relation). Melvin Franklin and Elbridge Bryant rounded out the group. Paul Williams was the primary lead singer in the group, which called itself the Elgins before renaming itself the Temptations when it joined the Motown roster in 1961 (they recorded one single as the Pirates during their early tenure at Motown as well). Williams also handled choreography (he later devised the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name Of Love” routine).
By 1963, Bryant had done much to alienate himself from the group, including hitting Paul Williams with a beer bottle backstage and putting him in the hospital. They fired Bryant and replaced him with David Ruffin, putting in place the classic lineup that turned the Temptations into hit makers. Producers at Motown favored Ruffin (and sometimes Kendricks) for lead vocals over Williams, and though the group often protested that Williams deserved more leads, he given very few, relegated to album tracks.
"No More Water In The Well," from the group’s excellent 1967 LP With A Lot O’ Soul, is one of those rare leads. This is the LP that began the group’s transition from its harmony soul sound to the Norman Whitfield-directed psychedelic soul material they did in the late 60s and early 70s. That transition is most acute on the seven-and-half-minute workout “Slave,” but you can hear the tougher sound on “No More Water” as well. Williams is gritty on the lead, singing a blues-tinged melody written with him in mind by Smokey Robinson, who produced the song.
Williams wouldn’t have many more lead vocals with the group. He’d suffered from sickle cell anemia for much of his life, drank heavily, and refused to see doctors for his conditions. The other Temptations did what they could to help him out, but by 1969, his health was failing him, and he was forced to retire from performing in 1971. He was replaced by Richard Street but stayed on the payroll.
Eddie Kendricks left the group for a solo career around the same time, and in 1973, Paul Williams went back into the studio with Kendricks to record what was to be his first solo single. The song was called “Feel Like Givin’ Up,” and it was never released. Williams committed suicide shortly after recording it, and everyone involved felt that releasing a song with that title wouldn’t be right.
George Harrison: “Art Of Dying” (All Things Must Pass, 1970)
The Beatles broke up in 1970, and before the year was out, each of them had released at least one solo album (Ringo went ahead and released two). Paul McCartney went small: McCartney is a loose collection of four-track home recordings. John Lennon, absent the governing forces of his bandmates, made a raw, punkish and incredibly self-absorbed album in Plastic Ono Band, an album critics have long lauded as the best Beatles solo joint, but which I frankly find impossible to like.
And then there’s George Harrison. He unloaded a triple LP—the message couldn’t have been any clearer if he had written a press release telling the world that John and Paul had crowded out his songs on the Beatles albums. Here was George clearing out his backlog, and you know what? All Things Must Pass, despite what all the “best albums of all-time” lists say, is the best Beatles solo album. Better than Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, better than Ram, McCartney and Band On The Run.
The way I see it is this: with their post-Beatles debuts, Lennon declared his importance, McCartney declared his self-sufficiency, Ringo declared that he would still be making music, and Harrison declared his freedom. He had songs he’d written in 1966 sitting around because the Beatles had rejected them, and now he could finally give them a proper airing. The first two LPs are full of great songs he’d been storing up for the occasion, and the third LP, devoted entirely to lengthy instrumental jamming, was an exclamation point on the declaration.
One of the songs Harrison originally wrote in 1966 was “Art Of Dying.” If the Beatles had agreed to record it at the time, I doubt it would have sounded much like it does on All Things Must Pass, but if they really did pass on it at the time, that seems like a miss to me. Still, I’m glad we got the version we did. Harrison’s guitar playing here is unreal, and though Harrison would later say he regretted the album’s heavy, reverberant sound, this is a good argument that he shouldn’t have second-guessed himself.
There are many other great songs on All Things Must Pass. I’ve often thought that “What Is Life” might be the best song any of the Fab Four did after splitting, but “Art Of Dying” stands out to me. I don’t buy into the spirituality or mysticism that George was writing his lyrics around during that time, but I think he wielded them skillfully and was able to write songs that allow me to ignore the specifics of what he’s saying and just enjoy the sound. A good horn arrangement doesn’t hurt either.
I recently reviewed reissues of the first two Suede albums for Pitchfork. These are great albums, and there’s a lot to talk about, both in the music and in the events surrounding it. When writing about records like this, there are always details and thoughts you just don’t have room for, and songs you wish you could linger on but can’t.
This is one of those songs. I was able to give it one phrase (“the breezy swagger of ‘Modern Boys’”), and that’s it. But it’s always been one of my favorite Suede songs, so I wanted to tackle it in a little more depth here.
As an American, I first heard this song as the tacked-on hidden track at the end of Dog Man Star. I also had to swallow hard and buy an album credited to “The London Suede,” that irksome psuedonym the band had to take stateside as a result of a frivolous trademark lawsuit that the courts didn’t bother to throw out.
On Dog Man Star, this song made absolutely no sense coming after “Still Life.” Nothing does. That song is as clear an album ender as anything since “A Day In The Life.” It is absolutely the last song on that album, artistically. The market reserves the right to disagree, though.
Thing is, “Modern Boys” would have fit very well somewhere in the middle of the album. I’ve always felt that the album’s one real flaw was “The Power.” It’s a weak song that didn’t fit the feel and flow of the music around it, and it’s placed smack in the middle of an otherwise flawless tracklist. In his liner notes for the reissue, Brett Anderson talks about swapping that song for the b-side “My Dark Star,” which would have automatically made the album much better, and we’re already talking about something that’s pretty much a masterpiece.
Anderson’s revised tracklist then sandwiches in another b-side, “Killing Of A Flash Boy,” before getting back to songs from the original album, in slightly re-arranged order. That’s a great song, but I think “Modern Boys” would fit better in that spot. “Flash Boy” is rhythmically rigid, one of the harder-edged songs the band ever did, and as such I don’t think it really fits. One of the things Dog Man Star rarely gets credit for is how loose the band sounds, which is not an easy sound to achieve when you’ve got an orchestra or horn section crammed into almost every track.
Maybe loose isn’t quite the right word. There may not really be a single word to describe the way that album flows—there is a tension on the record between what sounds composed and what sounds tossed-off that creates a compelling middle ground. “Modern Boys” has that tension. Anderson is working right in his wheelhouse, where sexuality is non-specific (or perhaps open-ended), and the rest of the band just sort of breezes behind him.
Bernard Butler layers on three guitar tracks—one acoustic (it bubbles to the surface a few times), one a strummed, clean electric (it opens the song), and a lead line played alternately through a wah pedal and a Leslie cabinet. I get the sense that song must have felt good to play. It moves so easily that no one has to work too hard to generate momentum. I’m not sure what you’d call that beat Simon Gilbert plays, but it’s not a straight rock beat at all.
As loose as it is, though, “Modern Boys” is still a thoroughly thought-out song. The instrumental coda that seals it is a perfect little eruption, and the aforementioned layering on the track is really intricate. This is what made Suede great. Their b-sides weren’t just junk lying around that wasn’t fit for the albums. They were songs that plenty of bands would have released as a-sides.
It was just a hidden track in the US, but in Britain, “Modern Boys” was a b-side of “The Wild Ones,” probably Suede’s best single. It was one of four—the other three were “This World Needs A Father,” “Eno’s Introducing The Band” (a sixteen-minute remix of the DMS opener), and “Asda Town,” the last of which was recorded after Butler left the band and was replaced by Richard Oakes.
"Modern Boys" was on CD1 of the single. UK singles in the 90s were usually released in two versions with different b-sides because of time restrictions on what could chart as a single in Britain. This has long been the bane of collectors, and it used to drive me nuts, which is one of the reasons I’m grateful for reissues like this that get everything together in one place.
The Flaming Lips: “Halloween On The Barbary Coast” (Hit To Death In The Future Head, 1992)
This song is loud. So what, right? There’s plenty of loud music. Well, there is, but in the 90s, the Flaming Lips, together with producer Dave Fridmann, made music that was uniquely loud. Try turning the volume way down and listening to this. It’s still kind of loud, even when it’s reduced to a whisper in terms of the actual sound coming out of the speaker.
It’s also not particularly dense music. I’ve always been intrigued by the way they managed to to make music that was so deafening while maintaining a sense of space in the recording. The only other band I can think of that ever managed to do that consistently was Led Zeppelin.
The paint-peeling guitar intro is played by Jonathan Donahue. Hit To Death In The Future Head was the Lips’ major label debut (they’ve been signed to Warner Brothers for twenty years now, which is pretty amazing). This was their second and final record with the lineup of Wayne Coyne, bassist Michael Ivins, drummer Nathan Roberts and Donahue. The album was finished in 1991, but didn’t come out until a year later because the label had trouble clearing a sample from Michael Kamen’s score to Terry Gilliam’s dystopian masterpiece Brazil. In the interim, Roberts left over creative differences and Donahue split to focus on Mercury Rev. Stephen Drozd and Ronald Jones took their places.
The Coyne/Ivins/Roberts/Donahue version of the band gets overlooked somewhat in favor of the quartet that succeeded it and the subsequent trio version of the band we’ve had since 1997, but the two albums it made are quite good (In A Priest-Driven Ambulance is the other). This is when the band came into its own as a creative force, and really became the innovative institution we know it as.
"Halloween On The Barbary Coast" would be on any Lips best-of I put together. I like how overwhelming it is, the gravitiyless feeling of the verses, and the clear confidence the band displays in deploying this heavy, classic rock-derived sound at a time when this wasn’t really in vogue anywhere (Nevermind was released as they wrapping recording, which is to say that when they made this music, loud rock that wasn’t hair metal was pretty much on the outs—Zep wasn’t precisely an indie rock touchstone, either).
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: “Spanish Castle Magic” (Axis: Bold As Love, 1967)
When Jimi Hendrix was just a teenager, he played some of his very earliest shows at a place called the Spanish Castle, a venue situated on unincorporated land in the Des Moines area about halfway between Seattle and Tacoma. Built in 1931, the place lived up to its name—in photos, it looks like a cross between a Spanish mission and a Moorish fort, complete with neon-lined battlements.
In the 30s and 40s, the place looks like it combined the atmospheres of a roadhouse and the opulent mob-run joints of New York, LA and Chicago. The stage was backed with an odd, curved wall covered in upholstery, which probably soaked up a lot of the dance hall’s natural reverb. During that era, the house band was the Frankie Roth Orchestra, which was later taken over by trombonist Gordon Greene (I’ve also seen his name spelled Gorden Green).
By the mid-1950s, the club’s peak years were behind it, and as the calendar flipped into the 60s, it became a big venue for local rock bands, and also a stop on the touring circuit—Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ernest Tubb and Gene Vincent all played there, among many others. The Sonics, Kingsmen and Wailers were regulars—the Wailers recorded a live album there, and were the first rock band to headline the venue in 1959. Tubb also recorded a live album there.
There’s no good documentation of everyone that Hendrix played with at the Spanish Castle, at least not that I can find, but he started going there in 1957, when he was fifteen. He’d ask to sit in with whatever band was playing that night, sometimes bringing his own amp—if the band blew one of their own amplifiers, he’d hop up on stage with his and make a deal—you can use mine, but I get to play, too.
Hendrix did also play there as a member of at least three groups: the Velvetones, the Rocking Kings, and Thomas And His Tomcats. This phase of his career didn’t last very long, though. In 1961, he was caught riding in a stolen car for the second time, and given a choice between two years in jail or two in the Army, he chose the latter.
They assigned him to the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell on the Tennessee/Kentucky line. When he was discharged early for being a terrible soldier, he and bassist Billy Cox, whom he’d met in the Army rec center, went to Nashville, and from that point on, Hendrix was a professional musician, touring the chitlin circuit before moving to New York and forming his own bands. Ultimately, Chas Chandler took him to London, and the rest is history.
But Hendrix seems to have kept a place in his heart for the Spanish Castle and the scene of his youth. Here, on one of his most underrated songs, he turns it into a sort of ultimate spiritual destination, a half a day away by dragonfly, if the wind is right. There’s a more literal element to the description of the Castle as “very far away,” too: Hendrix was living in New York and London, literally a day’s travel (at least) from his childhood home. He even clarifies that the castle is not actually in Spain.
In 1966, three teenagers were hit by a car and killed crossing old Highway 99 to get to a show at the Castle. The venue’s owners never quite recovered from the shock of it and wound down operations. The Spanish Castle closed in 1968, just months after Axis: Bold As Love was released, and was torn down that April. The dance floor was removed and became the floor of a gas station, which later became Butler Bar & Grill. Butler apparently closed sometime in the last year or so.
Marvin Gaye: “What’s Happening, Brother” (What’s Going On, 1971)
The 40th Anniversary edition of What’s Going On is out today. That’s as good an excuse as any to revisit the album, which has to be one of the most frequently played in my collection. It’s one of those albums that’s always at or near the top of Best Albums Ever lists, and when you see it there, you think about it for a second and think “yeah, there’s not much better than that.”
Everybody knows the title track, which leads off the album with so much effortless magic and profundity that it’s almost impossible to talk about anymore. It’s the best thing any member of the Detroit Lions has ever been involved in at the very least.
During his time off from recording and performing after the death of duet partner Tammi Terrell, Marvin actually tried out unsuccessfully for the Lions—you can see the results of his conditioning in the photos on the front and back covers of What’s Going On. Compare them to earlier shots of him—he’s much thicker, and looks a fair amount older as well.
I think of “What’s Happening Brother” as sort of the shadow of “What’s Going On.” It follows immediately afterward and begins the flowing suite that takes up the rest of side one. “What’s Going On” is the anthem, the open letter, the statement of purpose, and “What’s Happening Brother” goes behind it for the private moment that reflects all the same themes but does it through the eyes of Marvin’s brother, who had just returned from Vietnam. He’s been gone a year, but everything feels different now, and it’s tough getting back to life as usual.
He’s lamenting not being able to find work one second, then asking how the Tigers will be this season the next (the lyrics say “our ball club,” but you know Marvin meant the Tigers—he once said in an interview that the Tigers winning the World Series in 1968 was the only good thing that happened that year). There’s a balance of the serious and the trivial in there that reflects the way we really think and have to interact with the world. You can’t always take things one at a time, and that goes double when you’ve been away for a year, in a world where the rules are completely different.
It’s almost as much a masterpiece as its much more famous neighbor, and it’s the one that pulls you on into the rest of the record—it establishes the feel of the suite. Check what James Jamerson does on the bass just as Marvin’s vocal enters. It’s a totally unexpected flourish and deviation from the establishing line, and then he keeps doing little things like that throughout the song. I think Jamerson knew he might be playing on the record of his life, and every little trick and quirk he’d developed in his playing over nearly twelve years in the Motown studios is in what he does on this album.
And Jamerson got credit for the first time, too. Everybody did, including each individual member of the string section. Berry Gordy had never allowed that before. In fact, when he found out that Motown’s British operations were publishing the names of the session players in the mid-60s, he forced them to stop. Subsequently, when members of the Funk Brothers would tour with Motown revues in the U.K., they’d always have a line of admirers nearly as long as the one for the stars—Gordy wanted the attention on the star.
What’s Going On broke that model, and just in time, too, because everything was changing and Motown needed to change too to get with the new decade. Marvin never made another record like this. How could he? No one else has either. So he moved on, and that music was great, too, in a different way.
A little jazz ‘n’ jive from southern Africa today. Dorothy Masuka was born in Bulawayo, a railroad town in what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. In the 1940s and 50s, Bulawayo actually had a strange and cool jazz scene that featured fairly large bands of horn players. Hugh Tracey recorded Cold Storage Band, Los Angeles Orchestra, Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms, Chaminuka Band, De Dark Brownies, The Dick Ncube Trio, and Umtali Chipisa Band during some of his many recording trips through southern and central Africa—they’re collected on an SWP Records release called Bulawayo Jazz that I highly recommend.
Masuka was born in 1935, and probably experienced some of the early rumblings of that scene. In 1947, her family moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, where she attended a Catholic boarding school. Her father was Zambian, and her mother was Zulu, but she sings most of her songs in Ndebele, a language descended from Zulu and spoken in two major dialects primarily in northeastern South Africa and southern Zimbabwe.
Masuka was a talented singer, and had a successful audition with a South African record company called Troubadour while she was still in school. When Masuka was 16, she left school and went to the coastal city of Durban to become a singer with The African Ink Spots, a group led by Philemon Mogotsi. Thing is, her parents and the school hadn’t been told she was leaving, and she was apprehended and returned to school.
It was a temporary setback. When she escaped a second time and headed back to her hometown of Bulawayo, her parents relented and the school made no attempt to bring her back. She joined a group called the Golden Rhythm Crooners, then returned to Johannesburg and spent the rest of her teens singing and establishing herself as a performer and songwriter, touring with her hero, Dolly Rathebe, and gaining fame with a handful of appearances on magazine covers.
She recorded “Ba Zali Bami” in 1953 (most likely—it could have been a year earlier or later), and while it’s not her most important recording (we’ll get to that), it is by some measure her most infectious, in my opinion. I really wish I could publish the name of that saxophonist, but it appears to be lost to history.
Masuka was good friends with Miriam Makeba, and the two of them each caught the ire of South African censors more than once. The Special Branch investigated her and banned her single “Dr. Malan,” for its line “Dr. Malan has difficult laws.” D.F. Malan was Prime Minister of South Africa from 1948 to 1954 and was one of the major architects of the Apartheid policy that held sway there until 1994.
When she wrote a song for Patrice Lumumba, the murdered leader of the Congolese independence movement, in 1961, the Special Branch wasted no time raiding Troubadour, destroying the master and attempting to destroy every distributed copy of the song. She was in Bulawayo at the time and wouldn’t return to South Africa for three decades. Even her original home in exile, Zimbabwe, became untenable during the Ian Smith years, and she left for Malawi and Tanzania, only to return in 1980, when Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain and Robert Mugabe was elected as the first Prime Minister of the country’s post-minority rule era.
She finally made it back to South Africa in 1992, as Apartheid crumbled. She was very active in the 1990s, recording several albums and touring, and she’s still active today.
The Impressions: “Keep On Pushing” (Keep On Pushing, 1964)
I had meant to post this on Friday as a follow-up to the Van Dykes song, but life conspired to put it off to today. I don’t need to tell anyone that the Impressions under the leadership of Curtis Mayfield were amazing, but I think outside of soul music circles it is sometimes not quite fully appreciated just how central they were in the development of soul music, and its shift toward tackling social issues in its lyrics.
The group had begun as a quintet, with Jerry Butler billed as the group leader. They had a huge hit in 1958 with “Your Precious Love”—with Butler on lead and four voices backing him, you’d be hard-pressed to connect it to the trio version of the Impressions that Mayfield led with Sam Gooden and Fred Cash from 1962 to 1970.
In February 1964, Sam Cooke performed “A Change Is Gonna Come” on the Tonight Show, just two days before the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show, and the song was released on March 1st as part of Cooke’s Ain’t That Good News LP. It wasn’t released as a single until December 1964, a year after it was recorded and two weeks after his death. But it got around black America, and particularly amongst black musicians.
I don’t know when Curtis Mayfield first heard it, or what he thought of it, but in July, the Impressions released Keep On Pushing, with a title track that essentially picks up where “A Change Is Gonna Come” leaves off. Cooke wrote a song that very specifically deals with finding a way forward to equality through what seemed like impassable obstacles. In the song’s final verse, Cooke seems almost despondent before reminding himself that a change will come.
With “Keep On Pushing,” Mayfield has already worked through the hurt. The song is a full-throated call to work for equality until it’s achieved. Mayfield would follow this up with a string of songs that gradually grew more assertive in their call not only for equal rights but mutual respect and black pride. “People Get Ready” is an oblique companion to “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and then we have “We’re A Winner,” “Little Brown Boy,” “They Don’t Know,” “This Is My Country,” “Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)” and the epochal “Choice Of Colors.” And of course his solo work takes all of that much, much further.
But it all goes back to “Keep On Pushing.” It was the right song for its moment, and one whose brilliance hasn’t dimmed since its release.
The Van Dykes: “No Man Is An Island” (Hue 6501, 1965)
This type of song doesn’t get made anymore. No really. Listen to it. It’s sweet soul, falsettos and harmonies, clearly influenced by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, shooting for the type of pop appeal that would put it on the charts. It’s also skeletal, the voices backed only by some brushed drums and organ that sound as though they’re hiding out of bashfulness, and a guitar played with a sort of casual magic that would probably be worth listening to even without the vocals. The song has a message, and a blunt one at that.
It’s professionally recorded, but on a shoestring, and there are mistakes left in. It ends on a totally bizarre chord—this would be an extinct type of recording if it hadn’t survived for us to listen to it. People still make records that do everything this one does, but no one does them all at once. This is why I think listening to old music is important. Our concept of what constitutes pop changes over time, as do our goals for sound and our approach to packaging it. Explore old music deeply enough, and you will find sounds that are gone.
Recorded for Charles Stewart’s tiny Hue label in Texas in 1965, “No Man Is An Island” was a shot at reaching a larger listening audience that faced an uphill climb. There were tens of thousands of these 45s made in the mid-60s. Little garage rock bands putting out 45s, and soul vocal groups cramming into booths to record with the house bands of tiny studios, which in many cases were literally just friends of the guy who ran the studio. This was a whole sort of shadow music industry, making great records and feeding them into a system that hadn’t fully coalesced. Some of them hit and most of them didn’t. The ones that did might get picked up by a bigger label that sensed opportunity.
The Van Dykes came from Fort Worth. The lead singer was Rondalis Tandy, backed by harmonies from Wenzon Mosley and James Mays. Their backing band in the studio was a trio called the Rays. The Van Dykes were named for a different group Tandy had led at Fort Hood and formed initially as a quartet in 1964, but Eddie Nixon left before they recorded anything. The group lasted until 1968, and they fared better than a lot of small-time soul acts, touring Texas and the East Coast and recording half a dozen singles, most of which were compiled on the 1967 LP Tellin’ It Like It Is.
Most of those singles were made for Mala, which also reissued “No Man Is An Island” later in 1965 on Mala 520 (Mala was part of a family of three labels; the others were Bell and Amy)—Stewart also produced these sessions. Tandy himself did all their arrangements and intentionally kept the focus squarely on the voices. Obviously, as the lead singer, he was centering the sound around himself, but there’s some risk to that, too. The voices are really left out there pretty naked, and that means the performance has to be great.
Mala’s reissue of “No Man Is An Island” reached #24 r&b and #94 pop. It was their only single to scrape the pop chart, though a few subsequent ballads managed some minor r&b chart success. The group broke up when Mosley and Mays each got married and Tandy split for California.
Elton John: “All The Girls Love Alice” (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
Something got this song in my head a few days ago, and I’m not sure what it was. I don’t remember hearing it anywhere. Maybe it came up on the shuffle during one of those drives you have occasionally where you realize you’re a block from your destination and can’t recall a single thing about the trip. You just hope you didn’t run any red lights.
Anyway, it’s probably my favorite Elton John song, though there are plenty from the early 70s to choose from. John and Bernie Taupin were at the height of their joint songwriting powers back then. Their collaboration was still fresh, and they were extremely prolific—Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was a double LP and it was also John’s second album of 1973.
I got to know Elton John’s music the same way almost everyone does, through the radio. In my case, it a classic rock station, so it was pretty firmly centered on his work from the early 70s. My mother also had the 1974 Greatest Hits LP, where he has on the big red-lensed glasses on the cover, and I remember looking at the back and wondering who this Bernie Taupin guy was.
I also remember resisting Elton’s music at first. I think I primarily associated him with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” and like a lot of young kids who’ve just gotten into rock, straightforward ballads like that seem too soppy to get involved with, though I love them now. I also pretty much hated “Bennie And The Jets” and still find that song kind of annoying.
But there were a few songs that I just had to sit up and pay attention to. These were coming off a classic rock station playlist, so it took some time to get to some of them, but “Levon,” “Grey Seal” and “All the Girls Love Alice” were the three songs that penetrated my denseness and told me to give Elton John a real shot. So I bought a ten-cent copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road at an NPR record sale in Hartford (All Sales Vinyl, they called it), and had to admit it was a great record. I even found myself enjoying “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” which had always bugged me when it came on the radio.
I am generally the kind of person who can listen to a song 50 times without registering what it’s about, but “Alice” got me thinking pretty much immediately. In terms of its central subject, the lesbian experimentation (and possible prostitution, though it’s never specified) of the doomed protagonist, it couldn’t be much clearer, but as for the specifics of what exactly happens to Alice, it leaves a lot to the listener.
John was, at this point, wrestling privately with his own sexuality, and I think to an extent these lyrics are Bernie Taupin trying to work through it with his friend, or connect with the struggles he was going through. Alice’s sexuality is not straightforward—she may really have feelings for women, or she may be sleeping with women because this is the one place she’s been able to fit herself in. That line, “it’s like acting in a movie when you’ve got the wrong part,” could be connected to several other things in the song.
There’s another line that stands out to me. It’s at the end of the first verse: “a simple case of Mummy-doesn’t-love-me blues.” This line directly references British public attitudes toward lesbians at the time. It was thought by a lot of people, including some people with fancy degrees who ought to have known better, that working women raised girls who were much more likely to be gay, because the mothers weren’t setting a proper example of womanhood.
What Taupin was doing with this line isn’t entirely clear. Though he’s known for his gay rights advocacy now, and he certainly had good intentions at the time, there is a (likely small) possibility that he was reflecting public attitudes when he wrote that line. You can certainly look around his songbook and find plenty of examples of clumsy and sometimes thoughtless writing (pointlessly specifying the race of the waiter in “Tickin’”, for example, and referring to him as “negro” in 1974, at that!).
But it’s also possible, and probably more likely, that this line was intended sarcastically, as a rebuke to public attitudes. That’s how I hear it when John sings it, anyway, especially with Davey Johnstone’s caustic Leslie’d fuzz guitar ripping through the background. I could be projecting, but he seems to be pretty deep inside this character. At the time, Taupin would give John lyrics, and John would make a song out of them and that was it. There wasn’t a lot of back-and-forth editing. But I’d love to know if the two of them had a conversation about this song when Taupin gave John the lyrics.
I’ve heard that Taupin originally wrote this song about Alice Cooper, then re-wrote it into the song we know now. That adds a pretty odd layer to the song’s story.