Category: Popular

#423 THE WHO I CAN SEE FOR MILES – PINBALL WIZARD

#423

THE WHO

I CAN SEE FOR MILES
PINBALL WIZARD

The Who were an English rock band of the 1960’s. It would be an understatement to simply say they were influential in the world of rock music. They were huge. Their original lineup consisted of singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townsend, bass guitarist John Entwhistle, and drummer Keith Moon. The band sold well over a hundred million albums, and their music continues to sell even now. They rightly regarded themselves as bridging the gap between rock music and pop art. Their music is true classic rock.

The Who were pioneers in a number of areas—the use of synthesizers (still a new phenomenon is the 1960’s), their use of gigantic PA systems in concert (which caused a substantial hearing loss for Daltrey), and their attraction to auto-destructive art—destroying their instruments onstage at the conclusion of concerts—garnered attention all over the world.

There were many who regarded The Who’s nihilistic indulging in “auto-destructive art” as childish and pointless—especially if its real intent (as PeteTownsend characterized it) was to convey a revulsion for society’s previously-held beliefs which only led to war and death (the Vietnam War was in full swing). Probably not many in their audiences would have picked up on that. It was their music that counted, and of course, it is their music that will endure.

*****

I CAN SEE FOR MILES

The last half of the 60’s, in particular, was The Who’s time in the sun. Their songs I Can’t Explain, My Generation, Substitute, Happy Jack, and Won’t Get Fooled Again were all well received in both the U.K. They were a featured act at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight Festival. I Can See For Miles, from 1967, was their first really big hit in the U.S.

It was a song I was attracted to for reasons that, at the time, I marveled at. The Who’s use of harmony, simple as it was, was—and is—something I love, and it is also something I was surprised to hear coming from a rock band. In the accompanying clip, you’ll hear at 0:25 five harmonies in succession, the first four of which include dissonances that resolve only in the fifth. They do this again at 1:14, 1:58, and 2:44. The structure of the song moves—finally—from a minor I chord to a major IV chord at 3:00, a relief the listener is unconsciously anticipating. And then, at 3:30, they repeat the series of dissonance-containing harmonies, this time extending the suspense by having SEVEN chords which only finally resolve in an eighth.

As is so often the case—in all music—it is the simple things, performed well, that make the difference in a work of music.

*****

PINBALL WIZARD

I don’t remember what suddenly—urgently—moved me, one Sunday afternoon in my first year of living in New York—to race to the subway from where I lived on the upper west side and go to SAM GOODY’S down near Carnegie Hall to buy The Who’s rock opera Tommy.

Sam Goody’s was, in those pre-Tower Records days and well before our digital age, THE place to buy LP’s in New York. One immediately scoured the Sunday Times every week to find the Sam Goody’s ad and see what their deals of the week were, whether in classical or pop music. Three LP’s for 6.99 was a good price. I bought at least a hundred LP’s there. I suppose it was probably their Sunday ad for Tommy that drew me to their store that afternoon.

Tommy was all innovation—a ROCK OPERA! And, it was not a parody of an opera. It had a story to relate—it tells the story about a “deaf, dumb and blind” boy, including his experiences with life and his relationship with his family—it had musical variety, it was lengthy (2 LPs), and mostly, and it was, throughout, well-written. It was NOT simply a group of songs, loosely collated together with the hopes that one of its song would be a breakout single.

It DID happen to have one of those, however! Pinball Wizard became the most respected—and at Who concerts, the most anticipated—song the group would ever play. It was played at every Who concert. Even in their semi-retirement, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend, continuing to tour, please their audiences with Pinball Wizard.
I’m certainly not the first to have been astounded by the drama in the music of Pinball Wizard. From the urgency of Townsend’s initial guitar chords which is suddenly followed by a “fuzz” guitar intrusion–to Daltrey’s high tenor voice–to Entwhistle’s hyper-active bass, bouncing back and forth with octave-sized jumps–to Moon’s locomotive-drumming—to say nothing of the lyrics about the deaf, dumb, and blind boy—Pinball Wizard had it all.

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#420 STEPHEN BISHOP IT MIGHT BE YOU

#420

STEPHEN BISHOP

IT MIGHT BE YOU

 

The reason for the existence of this scenario—going to school for a decade and then looking for a college job—the reason it exists in the first place—has to do with the simple rules of supply and demand. There are many, many very fine pianists in the U.S., a number that has been increasing every single year. And there are only so many colleges and universities out there.

I duly did what I had to do—doctoral work—but panic set in as I was nearing the end of it. I was a new father, I had responsibilities. I was doing my DMA in Cincinnati, and one day, I happened to see an index card job listing for “Sinclair Community College” up in Dayton. Long story short, I applied for the position, auditioned, and got that job. It was going to be a position that would tide Tiraje and I (and little Jason) over for a year or two. Thus far, I have worked there, chairing the music department and doing all things piano-related, fulltime and now part-time, for 38 years.

Why I stayed put in Dayton is another fascinating story–those who know me will appreciate my sense of humor, sarcasm-laced with a touch of self-deprecation–but for the moment, I’m just painting a picture of the overwhelming relief I had at being gainfully employed, in a collegiate setting. I had done it! From my perspective, I had beaten the odds, the ball in the roulette wheel had safely landed on “college job.”

*****

So, I was still basking in the newness and comfort of being employed, in my second year of teaching, when the movie Tootsie came out. Those of you who are old enough will remember Tootsie—the Dustin Hoffman movie about an unemployable actor who adopts the identity of a woman just to get work. The movie was super successful, winning ten Academy Awards.

I saw no parallels to the movie plot and my own life—there are none—but I REALLY liked a song from the movie—“It Might Be You” sung by Stephen Bishop. The song itself was nominated for an Academy Award. There was something so hopeful about the lyrics, so archetypical and basic for a love song, and I found (still find, of course) the music very attractive. Like quite a number of James Bond movie themes, I actually felt the song was light years better than the movie itself. (Sorry, Tootsie fans.)

Its success could not have been too surprising, though. The music was written by famed movie-score composer Dave Grusin (The Graduate, Divorce American Style, On Golden Pond, Three Days of the Condor) with lyrics by the uber-lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman (The Way We Were, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life). Stephen Bishop, a singer from San Diego, was just beginning to get the recognition he would ultimately earn with songs like “On and On” and “Save It For A Rainy Day.” Bishop’s career path was paved by Art Garfunkel, who chose two Stephen Bishop demos to record and perform. Garfunkel secured Bishop’s first recording contract.

Bishop’s golden voice is easy on the ears. You don’t have to be of any certain age to appreciate him or this well-written song.

Pics: Bishop in performance, Hoffman as “Tootsie.”

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#415 SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES TEARS OF A CLOWN

#415

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES

TEARS OF A CLOWN

Pagliacci redux…

In your listening to pop music, do you have songs that, because of their particular sounds—their literal sounds upon your eardrums—make you physically feel better? Songs for which your psychic connection is one thing—a pleasing thing, of course—but you also have a visceral—and equally pleasing—physical sensation as well? “Tears of a Clown” is one of those songs for me.

Fall came early in 1970, and on a crisp Friday night, I was walking through the brightly-lit campus of Columbia University on New York’s upper west side. I was in my first month of living in New York City. Autumn was in the air, the school week was over, I was wearing my (cool) camel suede jacket, walking with hands in my pockets ala Bob Dylan in that famous Greenwich Village picture. It was a time of long hair, bell bottoms, beads, and other things that characterized the hippie lifestyle—all of which, at the time, I subscribed to. “Tears of a Clown” was running through my brain again and again as I walked through the wide-open campus.

I had never heard a pop song feature the sound of the bassoon, a wind instrument that I had always been drawn to. And, the lyrics of the song seemed to ring a bell—this was Pagliacci, the sad clown of Leoncavallo’s verismo opera, updated into a pop song with lyrics that everyone could relate to.

Stevie Wonder wrote the music for Tears. Right at the beginning of the song, Wonder wrote sounds reminiscent of a calliope, that curious instrument found in old-time circuses in which air is blown through large locomotive whistles. He was having trouble, though, coming up with lyrics of his own that he liked enough to put in the song. He asked Smokey Robinson if he could perhaps come up with lyrics.

After hearing the soundtrack, Robinson remarked that it had the sound of a circus, and he took that as the source of his inspiration, writing lyrics about a clown who must publicly appear happy but is in fact so sad—the Pagliacci story.

Now if there’s a smile on my face
It’s only there trying to fool the public
But when it comes down to fooling you
Now honey that’s quite a different subject

But don’t let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression
Really I’m sad, oh I’m sadder than sad
You’re gone and I’m hurting so bad
Like a clown I appear to be glad

Now they’re some sad things known to man
But ain’t too much sadder than
The tears of a clown when there’s no one around

Now if I appear to be carefree
It’s only to camouflage my sadness
And honey to shield my pride I try
To cover this hurt with a show of gladness
But don’t let my show convince you
That I’ve been happy since you
‘Cause I had to go (why did you go), oh I need you so (I need you so)
Look I’m hurt and I want you to know (want you to know)
For others I put on a show (it’s just a show)

Now they’re some sad things known to man
But ain’t too much sadder than
The tears of a clown when there’s no one around, uh
Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my surface hid
Smiling in the crowd I try
But in my lonely room I cry
The tears of a clown
When there’s no one around, oh yeah, baby
Now if there’s a smile on my face
Don’t let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression
Don’t let this smile I wear
Make you think that I don’t care
‘Cause really I’m sad

The song is one of the very few in pop music history to feature the sound of the bassoon. It is straight Motown sound—high lyric tenor with backup trio—the Miracles—and, in this case, the unmistakable sound of the bassoon from the very first measure. The energy of this song—its continual motion, as well as the poignancy of the words– have long made this a favorite song in my “Best of the Best Pop” folder in my Ipod Classic.

[If you are interested in hearing Smokey Robinson’s story of being inspired by Pagliacci, it can be heard here:

*****

Although I am guessing that many readers already know this, I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly mentioned that when it comes to choosing YouTube links for pop songs in my posts, I always choose the one I feel has the best audio quality—presence, dynamic range, clarity of lyrics, bass punch, and so on.

Very often, the link you’ll see on YouTube that has the most views is not the one with the best audio. It all depends on the quality of the equipment and the care taken by whoever chooses to upload the track. Consequently, the clip with the most view for “Tears” has about 1,400,000 views. But the one I am linking to—with the best audio—has just 30,000.
And, for those with sharp eyes, you will see, underneath this clip, a Motown copyright date of 1967. That was the year Wonder wrote the song. It was actually only released as Smokey Robinson’s single in 1970.

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#409 PATSY CLINE CRAZY/ I FALL TO PIECES

#409

PATSY CLINE

CRAZY
I FALL TO PIECES

Like Buddy Holly, Rick Nelson, and several other singing legends of the 1960’s, Patsy Cline’s life was cut short in the crash of small plane in bad weather in 1963. She was just 30 years old.

Cline had been one of the stars of the “Nashville sound” in the 50’s and 60’s. She had a wonderfully expressive voice, extending downwards into contralto range. She was regarded at the time of her death as being on par with Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jim Reeves. She was the first female artist to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame, posthumously.

Born Virginia Patterson Hensley, Cline was born and raised in Virginia. She came down with rheumatic fever as a young teen, an experience that permanently changed her voice, lowering and enlarging it. She came to recognition as a radio singer in the mid-50’s.

Cline married twice, first to Gerald Cline, a building contractor. He wanted her to be a housewife–their marriage ended, childless. She married Charles Dick in 1957 and they had a very happy marriage, with two children.

She won the talent audition to appear on the Arthur Godfrey television show in 1959, and her career was set. The Grand Ole Opry invited her to join their cast in 1960.

*****

The songs I’m featuring today have long been favorites. Really, I think that everyone who hears them has a positive reaction to both of them. The depth of emotion she communicates and her ability to squeeze the last drop out of every phrase make her songs timeless. I don’t even think of these songs as being from any particular era.

“Crazy” was a song introduced to Cline by Willie Nelson, who wrote it. She recorded it when she was recovering from a serious car crash, and suffering intense physical pain. Nevertheless, it quickly became—and has remained—her signature song.

“I Fall to Pieces” was recorded shortly before “Crazy”—and before the car crash—and established her as a chart-topping artist. It was her first crossover, country-to-pop, hit.

I love the lower range of all female singers, so for me, there’s something so compelling about “I Fall to Pieces.” Listening to Cline’s voice is the aural equivalent of falling back into a plush easy chair.

*****

I want to wish everyone a very happy 2019, which I hope will be filled with great music listening experiences for all.

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#407 LED ZEPPELIN STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

#407

LED ZEPPELIN

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Here’s my contention about Stairway to Heaven, the rock song from 1971 that, in the minds of rock music lovers, is the sine qua non of all rock music, the paragon of rock music excellence, the epitome of quality in song-writing: It IS unquestionably a great song—on musical grounds. Reams have been written about its lyrics—a little more about which in a minute. But my contention is that the greatness of this song is musical. Music gives it its power, completely.

Whatever metaphor from nature one might want to use for MUSIC—the wind that carries things—the fire that ignites things—the water upon which things flow—it is MUSIC that lends power to words, injecting meaning into words a thousand times more powerful than those words would be by themselves.

Maybe this is an accepted truth among all music lovers, regardless of the genre, and therefore a cliche. But I tend to think this is not the case. I think a majority of pop and rock music lovers feel that the power—for lack of a better word—in the music they love comes from the lyrics.

IMHO, nothing could be further from the truth.

And–just to put things into perspective: the breadth of musical acquaintance of most rock music aficionados—pardon my judgmental statement here—is limited, so that when they encounter music that is written and performed so well that they sense something transcendental about it, they label such music—appropriately—“great,” the “best”, and so on—an acknowledgment—whether they call it this or not—that such music is ART.

I think that kind of recognition is understandable. There are, however, many thousands of such examples in the world of art music and jazz. I am not trying to sound snooty or snarky, but as great as the music in Stairway to Heaven is as a rock song—it absolutely speaks directly to your soul from its first notes—it is a pebble on the beach among all examples of greatness in music.

*****

OK, now that I’ve alienated some readers, I’ll continue on in my sincere appreciation of Stairway to Heaven. I did not intend to deflate everything I’m about to say with what might seem to some like a straw-man argument that—perhaps—no one is seriously going to disagree with anyway. 😊

*****

Stairway to Heaven—going completely against recording industry protocol—was not released as a single when it came out in 1971. Rather, it appeared on Led Zeppelin’s fourth (and untitled) album.

Just to give the broadest picture of the song’s appeal—in retrospect–Stairway to Heaven:

• Holds a top position in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Top 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll
• Is one of Classic Rock’s Ten Best Songs Ever Written
• Is in VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of All Time
• Is the Recording Industry Association’s Song of the Century
• Has won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award
• Is in Rolling Stones’ Top 500 Songs of All Time
• Is in Q’s 100 Songs That Have Changed the World
• Is in Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos

The song has been downloaded many millions of times. Every YouTube submission of Stairway has millions of views. (The one I am linking to, with just 7 million, has—I feel—the best audio of them all.)

To say the least, this a song that is loved by many, many people.

*****

Led Zeppelin was a British band. The group consisted of guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. The group, recording for Atlantic Records, released eight albums over 11 years, from 1969 to 1979. It was their fourth album, which included Stairway to Heaven, that propelled them, permanently, to international attention.

Their style is basically rooted in the blues, but they were influenced by a number of diverse sources—Celtic music, jazz, world music and reggae—they were a band whose style it was hard to pigeonhole.

Stairway to Heaven was written shortly after the group’s fifth U.S. tour, at a cottage in western England, at night by a fireplace with a roaring fire—a picturesque scene, actually. Jimmy Page simply strummed out–created–the song, section by section, while Robert Plant wrote down lyrics—a very laid-back creation.

*****

Much has been written, as I mentioned, about the lyrics of the song:

[First section]
There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Oh oh oh oh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven
There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving

[Second section]
Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it makes me wonder
There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who standing looking
Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder
And it’s whispered that soon, If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen
Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on
And it makes me wonder
Your head is humming and it won’t go
In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind

[Third section]
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll
And she’s buying the stairway to heaven

One of the virtues of such opaque lyrics—like the texts in many “spiritual” books—is that they are open to interpretation. Each listener is free to make of the song whatever he wants. Generally speaking, the song has been interpreted as being:

• a story about a woman who accumulates money, only to find out the hard way her life had no meaning and will not get her into heaven
• a symbolic ode to drug use (which seems highly unlikely to me)
• a mystical fable about a medieval/pagan past

For many, the lyrics are inseparable from the song’s music. As I mention above, I am not one of them. And I would guess that most “Stairway” lovers listened to the song dozens of times before they paid any actual attention to the lyrics. Even now—going on 50 years–half a century!–from the time of the song’s peak popularity, the only lyrics I retain are “all that glitters is gold” and the refrain “it makes me wonder.”

But, again, that’s just me. 🙂

*****

The song is divided into three sections, each one of which is immediately appealing. The great site americansongwriter.com gives three appropriate labels to those sections:

0:00-2:15 Fairytale Acoustic Folk

Jimmy Page’s simple guitar accompanied initially by a pair of flutes, then Robert Plant starts intoning the lyrics – Plant had an unusually expressive voice

2:15-5:47 Sex-laden Swampy Grooves

A whole new world of instant harmony—supplied by Page’s doubled-necked Gibson guitar—and an intoxicating harmony, alternating between A Minor and D Major, the minor I and major IV chords – wonderful production quality: the engineers achieved a perfect balance between Plant’s melodic line and the guitars of Page and Jones—only at 4:20, more than half-way through the song’s eight minutes, do Bonham’s drums enter the action

5:47-8:01 Braying, blues-based hard rock

A legendary guitar solo by Page, one that instantly put him on par with all the great lead rock guitarists—rhythmically now driving to a frenzied conclusion – UNTIL, the very last final, solitary, solo-voice at 7:50: “and she’s buying a stairway to heaven”

*****
Stairway to Heaven is an exceptionally well-written song. As americansongwriter says, it is “an epic unrivaled in its grandeur and incalculable in its influence.”

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#401 ZOMBIES SHE’S NOT THERE

#401

ZOMBIES

SHE’S NOT THERE

Yes, another 1960’s pop song that I loved.

Actually, I also really liked their “Tell Her No” and “Time of the Season,” two of the Zombies other hits from that decade. But it was this first hit song of theirs that I especially liked—the mysterioso bass part, the almost-falsetto singing, the lyrics—it was a minor-key song that set a certain mood.

In 1964, the breakthrough year for the Zombies, they were a five man band: Rod Argent (singer/songwriter), Paul Atkinson (guitar), Hugh Grundy (drums), Paul Arnold (bass), and Colin Blunstone (lead singer). Originally called The Mustangs, they soon changed their name to the Zombies. The name sounded cool—but they only vaguely knew anything about the “walking dead” in Haiti.

The group won a beat-music competition in Britain, were signed by Decca Records, and had a huge first hit, both in the U.K. and the U.S. with “She’s Not There.”

Like other British invasion groups, they had a U.S. tour following this initial success. At two and a half minutes long, “She’s Not There” was neither long or particularly short for a successful pop song in 1964. But the group had creativity problems in terms of writing songs that were actually long enough for release as singles. “Tell Her No,” their next hit, was long enough and kept their name alive. They were induced to sign with CBS Records in 1967, and this resulted in their third, and final, big hit of the 60’s, “Time of the Season.”

The Zombies disbanded in 1969. Like many a previously successful band, they still often re-unite in order to tour and capitalize on their former fame. Back in the 60’s—and it’s still true today—Rod Argent’s “She’s Not There” is the song they will be remembered for.

The Zombies will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.

Well, no one told me about her
The way she lied
Well, no one told me about her
How many people cried

But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother trying to find her
She’s not there

Well, let me tell you ’bout the way she looked
The way she acts and the color of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool, her eyes were clear and bright
But she’s not there

Well, no one told me about her
What could I do?
Well, no one told me about her
Though they all knew

But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother trying to find her
She’s not there

Well, let me tell you about the way she looked
The way she acts and the color of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool, her eyes were clear and bright
But she’s not there

But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother trying to find her
She’s not there

Well, let me tell you about the way she looked
The way she acts and the color of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool, her eyes were clear and bright
But she’s not there

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#398 SCOTT MCKENZIE SAN FRANCISCO

#398

SCOTT MCKENZIE

SAN FRANCISCO

I suppose one had to live through the late 1960’s to fully appreciate “San Francisco” and realize the cultural impact it had. But the song is so nicely written—by John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas—and so nicely performed by Scott McKenzie–that it would still be a popular song today, just on its musical worth.

Phillips wrote the song, purportedly, in 20 minutes. Released in the spring of 1967, “San Francisco” was played not just in the United States but all across Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. It became the unofficial anthem of the counterculture movements—the hippie, anti-Vietnam war and flower power movements, all hallmarks of the time. It is still the song most associated with those movements.

Scott McKenzie (1939-2012) was born Phillip Wallach Blndheim, a name that he changed after meeting Phillips in the early 60’s. Along with Phillips, McKenzie was part of the Journeymen for a few years, later deciding he would go it alone in a solo career. He signed with Ode Records, which had also become a pathway to success for Carole King.

“San Francisco” was a huge—and McKenzie’s only—hit. Its music and lyrics have become intricately woven into the fabric of our history.

*****

If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there

All those who come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there
In the streets of San Francisco
Gentle people with flowers in their hair

All across the nation
Such a strange vibration
People in motion
There’s a whole generation
With a new explanation
People in motion
People in motion

All those who come to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there

If you come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there

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#395 MARVIN GAYE I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

#395

MARVIN GAYE

I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

One of the most popular and influential popular music stars of the 1960’s was shot and killed by his own father.

If you didn’t know this, it is really true. I’ll get to that story, but first, Marvin Gaye’s music.

Gaye (1939-1984) was a force of nature in the Motown world of the 1960’s. He was a singer, songwriter, and successful producer. He had huge hit songs with “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “How Sweet It Is to be Loved by You,” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

In a time when the Motown recording industry was dominated by the big production companies, Marvin Gaye broke free of them, producing in the early 1970’s two highly acclaimed and influential albums—What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On.

Gaye had grown up poor in the Washington D.C. projects, the Fairfax Apartments, a vast and desolate slum area. Gaye’s musical inclinations—singing, primarily—involved his being in one unsuccessful group after another in his teens. He broke free of Washington by moving first to Chicago and then Detroit, with a group called the Moonglows. At a party in the Detroit home of Berry Gordy—the biggest name in Motown—he so impressed Gordy that he was signed—as a soloist—on the spot. Gordy had him add the “e” to the end of his name before going public.

Gaye became not only a valuable singer, but a fine songwriter and collaborator. He wrote for the Marvelettes and started his first duet collaborations with Mary Wells. His collaborations with Kim Weston—“It Takes Two”—and Tammy Terrell—“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” among them—were huge successes. Terrell’s death from brain cancer was a devastating blow for Gaye. He would, though, collaborate yet again with Diana Ross.

Gaye’s 1968 hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was his first number one hit. For me, even now, it is one of those songs that hearing it once is just not enough. It is easy to hear the emotion in Gaye’s four-octave vocal range. Critics said that Gaye had three “voices,” which he was capable of instantly interchanging—a smooth high tenor, a raspy growl, and an “unreal” falsetto. In “Grapevine”, he sticks primarily to the high tenor. Structurally, “Grapevine” is—like dozens of his other creations–well-constructed. It stays with you.

*****

Gaye’s personal life was not happy. He married Berry Gordy’s sister in in 1963, but they divorced in 1973 at the peak of his fame. He subsequently married Janis Hunter in 1977, but that marriage also ended in divorce just prior to Gaye’s having to (temporarily) leave the country for Europe to avoid a tax-evasion charge.

Gaye’s father was a Pentecostal Christian minister and his mother a domestic worker. He was also a notorious cross-dresser and philanderer. He also had a sadistic streak, frequently brutally whipping Marvin for anything he perceived to be a shortcoming. Gaye’s sister recounted these beatings in an interview, saying that Marvin was often on the verge of suicide, had it not been for his comforting mother.

One afternoon in 1984, in Gaye’s Los Angeles home, Gaye was attempting to intervene in a very vocal argument between his parents, when his father took out a gun and shot Gaye twice, thus ending his life and a career in full bloom. Amazingly, Marvin Gay Sr. received only a six-year suspended sentence. He died in a nursing home in 1998.

*****

Gaye’s legacy as a soul musician and as a songwriter who could transmute social commentary into music are facets of his talent that live on. His influence, especially on the R&B world, cannot be overstated. His songs are continually covered by so many other great artists. It’s possible you may already be familiar with Gladys Knight’s cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, and Michael McDonald are just a few artists who have performed successful covers of Gaye’s great songs.

“I Hear It Through the Grapevine” is a true classic.

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#393 MIRIAM MAKEBA PATA PATA

#393

MIRIAM MAKEBA

PATA PATA

Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) was variously known as Mama Africa, the Queen of South African Music, and Africa’s first superstar. She was one of the first African musicians to receive worldwide attention. Her musical personality and her political stance against apartheid reinforced each other throughout a long career. As fine a musical artist as Makeba was, it is probably for her political activism that she will be remembered.

Miriam had to find work as a child after the death of her father in Johannesburg, where she grew up. She had a brief and abusive marriage at the age of 17, giving birth to her only child. She began singing professionally to support herself, and her talent was quickly recognized. She met the young lawyer Nelson Mandela backstage after one of her performances, a meeting she never forgot.

Makeba had a brief performing role in the 1959 movie, Come Back Africa, which brought attention to her vocal gift. A chance encounter with Harry Belafonte in London, while promoting the movie, led to his becoming her mentor and friend. She moved to New York in 1960, making her U.S. debut on the Steve Allen show. An attempt to return to South Africa for her mother’s funeral was prevented by the South African government. Because of her anti-apartheid views, she had become persona no grata.

Makeba’s personal life, aside from her political involvements, was always-in-motion. Her career in the U.S. was flourishing—her song “Pata Pata” from 1967 was her biggest U.S. hit, and she and Belafonte won a Grammy for their duet album, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba—an album that dealt with apartheid in South Africa.

Makeba was musically at the forefront of what has become known as “world” music—in her case, a blending of Afropop, jazz, and indigenous music from Africa. She was married for five years in the sixties to Hugh Masekela, the so-called “father of South African jazz.”

While she was testifying at the United Nations against South Africa in 1968, she simultaneously became romantically involved with—and later married—Stokely Carmichael, a leader in the Black Panther Party. As a result of this, it was ironic that she lost the interest of white record-buying America at the very same time that RCA, who had purchased her contract, was viewing her notoriety as a positive thing for worldwide record sales.

If all of this activity was not enough, Makeba also successfully won two battles with cancer—breast and cervical. Her closest friends during this decade were Dizzy Gillespie, Cicely Tyson, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, and Sidney Poitier. A remark of hers during this time, concerning living in the U.S.—as compared to living in South Africa—is telling: speaking of racial discrimination in the two countries, she said that “there just isn’t much difference in America; it is a country that has abolished slavery but still has its own apartheid.”

Maekeba’s marriage to Carmichael caused the United States to regard her as an enemy of the state. She was under surveillance by both the CIA and the FBI. While she and Carmichael were on a trip to the Bahamas, she was banned from returning to the U.S. and her visa was confiscated. She lived for the next twenty years in the South American country of Guinea. For the next two decades, she was revered in Africa by many countries as being “theirs”—Ghana, Liberia, Algeria, and Zaire among them. At a stadium concert in Ghana, the cheering of 60,000 spectators drowned out her music altogether.

Makeba’s daughter—who had become a singer herself—died in childbirth in Belgium in 1985. Makebo left Guinea to move to Belgium to take care of her two grandchildren, now motherless. Around this time, Paul Simon made Makeba’s acquaintance and invited her to participate in his highly successful tour and album, Graceland.

*****

I realize that everything I’ve written thus far centers mostly on Makeba’s political life. In her own way—at least to me—she seems like an updated and transplanted Victor Hugo, a great artist with very strong political convictions. She had a most interesting life. I’ve hardly scratched the surface here.

“Pata Pata” was Miriam Makeba’s biggest-selling and most popular song. I certainly love it, and have since the first time I heard it while in high school. The song had actually been recorded ten years before its 1967 release. But with the release of “Pata Pata”–which she considered to be an insignificant song–a strain developed in her professional relationship with Belafonte, which was never resolved.

*****

Does one need to know ANY of this to appreciate “Pata Pata”—a song about a dance? Absolutely not. What I love to do is listen to “Pata Pata” in my car. The song is exceptionally well-recorded, and when the music actually starts (at 0:10), the aural explosion—I always pump up the volume in advance—is really wonderful.

Hope you enjoy “Pata, Pata” and the (too brief) story of Miriam Makeba’s life. She was one of the most admirable women of our time.

Pics: Miriam Makeba; doing the Pata Pata.

 

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#388 DEPECHE MODE ONE CARESS – ENJOY THE SILENCE

#388

DEPECHE MODE

ONE CARESS
FROM “SONGS OF FAITH AND DEVOTION” (1993)

ENJOY THE SILENCE
FROM “VIOLATOR” (1990)

It surely must be a reflection of the collective psyche of our times when the lyrics of Depeche Mode songs can be so personal to so many.

The British electronica band Depeche Mode has been around for nearly 40 years. Their music has always walked a fine line between that which is popular and temporary—they’ve been one of the world’s premiere dance club bands—and that which is art for art’s sake. There is a lot of artistry in Depeche Mode.

At the time the tracks I’m posting today were recorded—from a time (1990-95) that many consider to be the band at its peak—the group consisted of Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Andy Fletcher, and Alan Wilder. For the past 20 years or so, they have also included Peter Gordeno and Christian Eigner while touring. Their music has been variously described as synth-pop, new wave, electronic rock, dance-rock, alternative rock, arena rock, and pop rock.

In its early years, Vince Clarke, a songwriter and synth player, was part of Depeche Mode. The group was very popular from its outset in both the UK and the US with songs such as “Just Can’t Get Enough”—teenage fare that is, to me, pretty forgettable. But following Clarke’s departure from the group in 1985, the band’s songs took on a darker sound. Martin Gore took on chief song-writing duties, and his lyrics included themes such as religion, sex, politics, and suicide.

Martin Gore’s personal history is interesting as it relates to the lyrics of his songs and his centrality to the group. He was born of a British woman and an African-American GI who was stationed in Britain. But he was raised by his mother and a stepfather, a man he believed to be his actual father until he was 13. As an adult, he made a point of meeting in person his biological father, an unpleasant experience that he prefers not to talk about. Perhaps as a result of this, he has stated that he feels lyrical themes which tackle issues related to solitude and loneliness are a better representation of reality than “happy songs” which, to him, are fake and unrealistic.

Regarding Depeche Mode’s name, it was also Gore who came up with it. He thought it was French for “fashion dispatch.” Ever since his high school days, when he named his then-current band “French Look”, it seems—one can surmise—that Gore had been attracted to a vision of dressed-in-black, French existentialism.

*****

Depeche Mode have released a total of 14 studio albums and 54 singles thus far. They’ve sold over 100 million records worldwide. Rock critics have claimed that Depeche Mode is the last serious English influence on popular music, and that their influence only grows with the passage of time. Q Magazine, the British popular music magazine, has awarded Depeche Mode its highest awards, calling Depeche Mode “the most popular electronic band the world has ever known.”

As you might guess, with such a heavily techno emphasis, the producer is just as important as the musicians themselves. Depeche Mode teamed up with Mark Ellis—known in the business as “Flood”—starting with their 1990 album Violator.

Violator was the band’s seventh album; Songs of Faith and Devotion their eighth. Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion are central to the history of Depeche Mode. Violator propelled the group to international stardom. Both of these albums were experimental in nature, involving a more improvisational spur-of-the-moment approach to recording as well as an introduction of previously unused musical elements—live strings, uillean pipes (a la Celtic music), and female gospel vocals. Both of these albums were very successful. Songs of Faith and Devotion was their first album to debut at the number one spot.

I personally find Depeche Mode’s actual MUSIC to be the group’s most interesting feature. Gore’s voice has a very appealing timbre, and his utilization of rhythm is inventive. If you like techno music, Depeche Mode will appeal to you. If not, maybe not so much.

*****

But I would also have to say that the band owes its success to Gore’s exhibitionist-confessional-social commentator lyrics, something Depeche Mode fans clearly relate to.

“One Caress” has variously been interpreted as being about depression, taking drugs, addiction and thinking about suicide and death:

Well, I’m down on my knees again
And I pray to the only one
Who has the strength
To bear the pain
To forgive all the things that I’ve done
Oh girl

Lead me into your darkness
When this world is trying it’s hardest
To leave me unimpressed
Just one caress
From you and I’m blessed
When you think you’ve tried every road
Every avenue
Take one more look
At what you found old
And in it you’ll find something new
Oh girl

Lead me into your darkness
When this world is trying it’s hardest
To leave me unimpressed
Just one caress
From you and I’m blessed
I’m shying from the light
I always loved the night
And now you offer me eternal darkness
I have to believe that sin
Can make a better man
It’s the mood that I am in
That’s left us back where we began
Oh girl

Lead me into your darkness
When this world is trying it’s hardest
To leave me unimpressed
Just one caress
From you and I’m blessed
Oh girl

Lead me into your darkness
When this world is trying it’s hardest
To leave me unimpressed
Just one caress
From you and I’m blessed

Many Depeche Mode fans put “Enjoy the Silence” at the top of DM’s creativity. The lyrics are much less opaque than “One Caress”, but still not so happy: only when the silence between two people is broken does misunderstanding start. The beauty of non-verbal communication is to be preferred over that which is spoken:

Words like violence
Break the silence
Come crashing in
Into my little world
Painful to me
Pierce right through me
Can’t you understand?

Oh my little girl
All I ever wanted
All I ever needed
Is here in my arms

Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm
Vows are spoken
To be broken
Feelings are intense
Words are trivial
Pleasures remain
So does the pain

Words are meaningless
And forgettable
All I ever wanted
All I ever needed
Is here in my arms
Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm

All I ever wanted
All I ever needed
Is here in my arms
Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm
All I ever wanted
All I ever needed
Is here in my arms
Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm
Enjoy the silence

ONE CARESS

ENJOY THE SILENCE

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