Pinball Wizard: The Who; Elton John [Tommy]; McFly.

Hello there! This is the sixth installment in our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.”  In these posts, we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a movie.

This week’s entry is Pinball Wizard. This is a great hard-rock song composed by Pete Townshend. It was featured in the 1975 movie Tommy, directed by Ken Russell.

We will start with a brief review of The Who. We will then review the movie Tommy, and discuss the importance of Pinball Wizard in that film.

One cover of that song was performed by Elton John in the movie Tommy. We will review a second cover of that song by the British pop group McFly.

The Who, Pinball Wizard:

The Who have been one of the most durable and influential rock bands of all time. Since their inception over 50 years ago, they have produced an exceptional body of work. The Who have also inspired any number of hard-rock or punk-rock groups that followed them.

We have featured The Who in a number of earlier blog posts; see here; here; here; here; and here.  Following is a brief summary of their history.

The Who evolved from a band, The Detours, originally organized in 1959 by Roger Daltrey. Three of the band members – lead guitarist Pete Townshend, lead vocalist Roger Daltrey, and bassist John Entwistle – had been classmates at Acton County Grammar School.

After a few early personnel changes, and a change of name to The Who, in spring 1964 the band settled on Keith Moon as their drummer. Daltrey concentrated on vocals, while Townshend moved to lead guitar and also started writing all of their songs. The group then began to establish themselves as a cutting-edge British Invasion band.

Below is a photo of The Who. They are appearing on the TV show “Pop Go the Sixties,” in Dec. 1969. From L: Keith Moon; Roger Daltrey; Pete Townshend; John Entwistle.

The Who were one of the first groups I saw after I arrived in England as a graduate student in October 1965. They made a vivid, lasting impression on me.

First off, the volume of the music, the ferocity of the playing, and the showmanship were unlike anything I had seen. At that time The Who were pioneers in the use of those gigantic Marshall amplifier stacks that are now staples of rock music.

Furthermore, the use of feedback and distortion were also rather new to me. And the manic antics of Pete Townshend on guitar and Keith Moon on drums were spectacular.

Pete Townshend would fling himself about the stage – leaping in the air and kicking his legs apart; twisting his body around; and showcasing his legendary ‘windmill’ style where he would swing his right arm in a gigantic circle, passing over the guitar at exactly the right instant to strike a power chord.

After attending a Who concert and trying to re-gain my hearing, I pegged The Who as primarily a novelty act. They seemed to stress aggression and sheer volume over craftsmanship, and I predicted that they would rapidly burn out.

Silly me!  The two surviving members Pete and Roger are still touring, over 50 years later. They are one of the most long-lived rock bands.

In the late 60s, The Who were famous in Britain but much less well known outside the U.K. They were elevated to world superstardom after their performance at Woodstock in August, 1969. The Who a major hit there, and they were also one of the stars of the Woodstock concert film.

At Woodstock, The Who played several songs from Tommy, the double album they had released three months earlier.  This was the music to a rock opera composed by Pete Townshend.

Tommy is a youth who has suffered a traumatic experience that has rendered him  temporarily deaf, dumb and blind.  Tommy experiences only vibrations, such as arise in music. Despite his handicaps, he is still able to play pinball at an incredibly high level.

Pinball Wizard recounts the experience of a pinball champion called “Local Lad.” To his amazement, he loses a crucial match to young Tommy.

Ever since I was a young boy
I’ve played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I must have played them all

But I ain’t seen nothing like him
In any amusement hall
That deaf dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pin ball!

He stands like a statue,
Becomes part of the machine
Feeling all the bumpers
Always playing clean

He plays by intuition,
The digit counters fall
That deaf dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pin ball!

 

Here are The Who performing Pinball Wizard live.

This took place at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, just about a year after Woodstock. The Who are at their hard-rocking best here. Performing before an audience of roughly 700,000 people (to put this into perspective, the entire population of the Isle of Wight is about 100,000), Pete Townshend flails away on his guitar, while John Entwistle chimes in on bass guitar. Meanwhile, Roger Daltrey provides his rocking vocals and Keith Moon wallops his drum kit with all his might.

Pete Townshend was not thrilled with his lyrics for Pinball Wizard.  He once called it
“the most clumsy piece of writing I’d ever done”.
Nevertheless, Pinball Wizard remained a favorite song for The Who. Over the decades, it was nearly always included in Who concerts.

Tommy, Elton John and Pinball Wizard:

In 1975, Tommy was converted into a major motion picture by director Ken Russell.

Roger Daltrey, lead singer for The Who, played the lead character Tommy. The other band members of The Who appear in several scenes. The movie also featured an all-star cast.

Here is a brief summary of the plot of Tommy. A WWII pilot, Captain Walker, gets married and goes on honeymoon with his wife Nora (Ann-Margret) before he leaves for active duty.  In battle, he is shot down and presumed dead, although in reality he is missing and severely wounded.

After a few years, Nora begins a relationship with a co-worker, Frank (Oliver Reed). Frank and Nora are making love one night when Captain Walker suddenly returns. A struggle ensues and Walker is killed.

Tommy (Roger Daltrey) observes the whole scene and is sufficiently traumatized that he becomes temporarily deaf, dumb and blind. Frank and Nora make several efforts to cure Tommy; not only are these efforts unsuccessful, but Tommy is badly abused in several different scenes.

Tommy is mistreated by the cult of a religious figure, and by an “Acid Queen” (Tina Turner) who administers hallucinogenic drugs to him. He is also bullied and sexually abused.

Despite his multiple disabilities, Tommy discovers that he is a pinball prodigy. Eventually he triumphs in a major pinball championship.

A medical specialist (Jack Nicholson) correctly diagnoses Tommy’s problem, but seems more interested in flirting with Nora than in curing Tommy. In frustration, Nora throws Tommy through a mirror; this miraculously cures him.

Tommy then wishes to share with the world the insights he gained from his experiences. He produces extravagant shows, constructs a holiday camp, and becomes a world-famous personality.

Eventually, his followers become restless and demand that he teach them something. In response, Tommy temporarily turns everyone deaf, dumb and blind. The followers then riot, killing both Nora and Frank and burning down the camp that Tommy had founded. At the end of the movie, Tommy returns to the same mountain where his parents had celebrated their honeymoon.

Apparently Pete Townshend and The Who played a draft version of Tommy to critic Nik Cohn. Cohn’s opinion was that the plot was depressing and ponderous. He suggested it would lighten up the story if, despite his handicaps, Tommy was proficient at a sport.

Townshend then came up with pinball. He immediately wrote and recorded the song Pinball Wizard, and added it to the score for Tommy.

Here is Elton John in the Pinball Wizard scene from the movie Tommy.

Elton is cast in the role of the former pinball champ “Local Lad,” while Roger Daltrey plays the lead role of Tommy. Apparently Elton had to be convinced to sing Pinball Wizard in the film; one of the inducements provided by Ken Russell was that Elton was allowed to keep the enormous oversized pair of Doc Martens shoes that he wears in the movie.

Elton John replaces Pete Townshend’s guitar parts by keyboards in his version of the song. In the background of the movie scene, we see the other members of The Who – Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon.

However, they are not playing on Elton’s record. Elton is backed by his own band – Davey Johnstone on guitar; Dee Murray on bass; Nigel Olsson on drums, and Ray Cooper on percussion. Several of these musicians worked with Elton John for more than 40 years.

For pinball aficionados, the machine used by Roger Daltrey in the movie is a 1965 Gottlieb Kings & Queens, while Elton John is playing on a 1965 Gottlieb Buckaroo. Both machines were modified to allow the unbelievably high scores shown in the film. The pinball scene was one of the most critically-acclaimed in the movie Tommy.

The movie Tommy was generally highly rated. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture/Musical or Comedy, and Ann-Margret won a Golden Globe Award as Best Actress. As a “rock opera,” I have to say that the music is a big success.

As far as the movie goes, I don’t agree with the critics. To my mind, the film is embarrassing and nearly unwatchable. Ken Russell’s flaws as a director are glaringly obvious, and the movie is so over-the-top that even the great rock songs from The Who can’t salvage it.

The following clip is an example of Ken Russell’s excesses. This is a scene where Ann-Margret is hallucinating.  The TV set literally explodes, drenching her first in detergent, then baked beans, and finally molten chocolate.

It is truly awful to watch Ann-Margret writhing on the floor, covered in liquids. At the end, she is rolling around while hugging a bolster that resembles a gigantic wiener. What were you thinking, Ken?

One more interesting note about Tommy. The music for the film was recorded on five separate speakers, a technical innovation called “Quintaphonic sound” that was developed specifically for this movie.

However, Quintaphonic sound turned out to be difficult to implement. Every theatre showing Tommy had to be specially retro-fitted with new speakers, and the playback equipment had to be aligned in every venue. To the best of my knowledge, Quintaphonic sound was never again used in another movie.

At the time Tommy was released, Elton John was already a major international star. Elton John’s version of Pinball Wizard was issued as a single in the U.S. and U.K., where it reached #7 on the pop charts.

The movie Tommy coincided nicely with Elton John’s ‘manic phase,’ the period from roughly 1975 to 1990. Elton John enjoyed phenomenal productivity, while trotting out some of the most flamboyant costumes in the music industry. Below is a photo of Elton John performing in 1975.

Over a nearly 50-year span, Elton John has established one of the most enduring and productive careers in rock music. He
has sold more than 300 million records, making him one of the best-selling music artists in the world. He has more than fifty Top 40 hits, including seven consecutive No. 1 US albums, 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 Top 10, four No. 2 and nine No. 1. For 31 consecutive years (1970–2000) he had at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100. … In 2008, Billboard ranked him the most successful male solo artist on “The Billboard Hot 100 Top All-Time Artists” (third overall).

Elton John has been an outspoken and articulate advocate for the GLBT community. He has been quite courageous about combatting public prejudice in this area, particularly since his advocacy might have negatively affected his career.

At age 70, Elton John continues to perform today.  Elton, long may you rock.

McFly, Pinball Wizard:

McFly are a highly successful British rock quartet. In 2003, Guitarist Tom Fletcher participated in auditions for a new band, where guitarist and vocalist Danny Jones was brought in.

The group then added bassist Dougie Poynter and drummer Harry Judd through an ad in the British music magazine NME. So, McFly was formed. Fletcher and Jones share the lead vocals for the band. Below is a photo of McFly performing at the O2 Forum in London in 2016.

McFly appears to be a band that has experienced tremendous success in the U.K., but has significantly less acclaim in the U.S. For example, their first album, the Dec. 2003 release Room On the 3rd Floor, debuted at #1 in the U.K. This made the group the youngest ever to have their first album start out at #1 on the charts, a title they took from none other than The Beatles. However, to the best of my knowledge, this album did not dent the U.S. charts.

McFly’s next album was the 2005 Wonderland. Once again, this reached #1 on the U.K. album charts. They released their version of Pinball Wizard as the B side of a single in 2005; that record also reached #1 in the U.K.

Here is a live performance of Pinball Wizard by McFly. This took place at Manchester during their Wonderland tour of 2005.

This is a straightforward cover of The Who’s rock classic. McFly produce more or less a note-for-note copy of the original. Danny Jones does his best Pete Townshend impression, thrashing away on acoustic guitar, while Jones and Tom Fletcher share the lead vocals. McFly are a tight ensemble, and the audience seems to love their performance.

It appears that in 2006, McFly attempted to penetrate the U.S. pop market. Several of the band’s songs from their first two albums were used as the soundtrack for the Hollywood film Just My Luck, starring Lindsay Lohan and Chris Pine. McFly also appeared in the movie (Chris Pine plays the manager of the band), and they released an album of that title in the U.S.

I don’t know about the movie soundtrack, but Just My Luck must have been a stinker of a film. It has a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which stated that the movie “confuses misfortune with stupidity.” For her performance in this film, Ms. Lohan was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Actress of the Year.

Despite their lack of success in the U.S., McFly continued to “mcfly high” in the U.K. They released more best-selling albums, including a “Greatest Hits” album in 2007, and headlined a number of arena tours. They also toured extensively in South America.

It is always interesting to me when a group is phenomenally successful in one country but relatively unknown in another. It would appear that McFly falls into this category.

You can probably tell from this segment that I am not “tuned in” to modern rock ‘n roll. So I hope that my remarks about McFly are reasonably accurate, and apologize in advance if I have let mistakes creep into this entry.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Pinball Wizard
Wikipedia, Tommy (musical)
Wikipedia, Tommy (1975 film)
Wikipedia, The Who
Wikipedia, Elton John
Wikipedia, McFly

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Sympathy For The Devil: The Rolling Stones; Guns ‘N Roses; Rickie Lee Jones

Hello there! This is the fifth installment in our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” In this series, we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a major movie.

This week’s blog entry is Sympathy For The Devil. This is a controversial and edgy rock song composed by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was featured in the 1968 movie One Plus One, written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

We will start with a brief review of the Rolling Stones. We will then review the movie One Plus One, and discuss the central importance of Sympathy For The Devil in that film.

Then we will review two covers of this song, one by Guns ‘N Roses and the second by Rickie Lee Jones.

The Rolling Stones, Sympathy For The Devil:

For over 50 years, the Rolling Stones have been one of the most successful bands in rock music history. They have also been one of our favorite groups to review in earlier blog posts: see here; here; here; here; here; here; here; and here.

As a result, we will give a short review of the band’s history in this post.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been primary school classmates and friends until their parents moved apart. Meeting up again when they were both in college, they realized that they shared an interest in blues and rock music.

So Mick and Keith joined up with multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones. Because Brian was the most accomplished musician, having played guitar with Alexis Korner’s influential band Blues Incorporated, Jones was initially the group’s leader.

After a few early personnel changes, the group settled on a quintet.  Below is a photo of the Rolling Stones in 1968. From L: bassist Bill Wyman; lead vocalist Mick Jagger; guitarist Keith Richards; multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones; drummer Charlie Watts.

Initially the Stones played almost exclusively covers, becoming leaders in an American blues revival movement in London. But then they switched from blues to rock ‘n roll. At first they played covers of R&B and rock songs, but soon Mick and Keith began writing original songs for the Stones.

In 1968, when the song Sympathy For the Devil was written, the Stones were one of the most famous rock bands in the world. While the image projected by the Beatles was initially as lovable mop-tops, the Stones had a well-earned reputation as “bad boys.”

As we will see, Sympathy For the Devil provided critics of the Stones with ammunition to argue that the group might be members of a Satanic cult.

One Plus One and Sympathy For The Devil:

One Plus One was a 1968 movie written and directed by the great French avant-garde film-maker Jean-Luc Godard. A central element of the movie was the filming of the Rolling Stones creating a song.

The tune that the Stones were rehearsing during Godard’s filming was Sympathy For The Devil. Throughout the movie, there are shots of the Stones writing the song, rehearsing it, and recording the parts that were then assembled to produce the final version.

To avoid confusion in this post we will refer to Godard’s movie as One Plus One. However, a producer’s edit of Godard’s film was also titled Sympathy For the Devil, and it is likely that nowadays more people know the film by the “Sympathy” title than by the film’s original name.

Sympathy For the Devil is credited to Jagger and Richards, but the lyrics were written by Mick Jagger alone. Jagger’s notion was to present the Devil as a cultured, urbane personality, who stimulated humans to engage in evil and to carry out atrocities. Jagger asserts that he got this idea from works by Baudelaire.

Sympathy For The Devil consists of an individual (the Devil) addressing the listener. He reviews a number of gruesome incidents in human history, beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste

I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

[CHORUS] Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

The lyrics go on to describe violent religious wars waged in Europe; the Russian Revolution; and World War II. The times were sufficiently turbulent that Jagger’s original line “who killed Kennedy?” had to be changed to “who killed the Kennedys” after Bobby Kennedy was also assassinated in June 1968.

Keith Richards made significant contributions to producing the song; for example, Keith suggested that the song utilize African rhythms (known as “candomble,” our word for the week).

As a result, the song maintains a driving beat that is accentuated by the use of congas and other drums. In addition to the five Stones (Mick Jagger on lead vocals, Keith Richards on lead guitar and bass, Brian Jones on rhythm guitar, Bill Wyman on maracas, and Charlie Watts on drums), the song includes Rocky Dijon on conga drums and Nicky Hopkins on piano.

Everyone chimes in on backing vocals, including Marianne Faithful and Anita Pallenberg. Here is a montage of scenes from the film One Plus One that feature the Stones.

This is just about the best video I have ever seen that shows the genesis and recording of a rock song. In addition to showing how the elements of the song were assembled, the film shows the increasing isolation of Brian Jones. It would not be long before Jones was kicked out of the Stones, and not long after that before he drowned in his swimming pool.

Godard traveled to Olympic Sound Studios in London to film the Stones at work. Godard’s shots of the Stones include long, slow tracking shots through the studio. Different individuals and groups are shown playing or rehearsing the tune. The video is priceless, revealing intimate details of the conception and production of this song.

Since this is a Godard movie, it contains many mystifying scenes and seemingly unconnected events. I will do my best to provide a short summary of the film, which was shot during Godard’s “Revolutionary Period.”

Throughout the movie, a group of Black Panthers wander around a junkyard, reading revolutionary pamphlets and swapping weapons. A number of white women have apparently been captured by this group, and are brutally treated by the Panthers. Apparently they are also killed, because from time to time women’s bodies appear in various scenes.

There is a scene where a camera crew films a character called Eve Democracy. This woman appears in a peasant dress and answers every question in a monosyllabic “Yes” or “No.”

There is also a confusing scene inside a bookstore that sells everything from old comic books to Nazi propaganda pamphlets to pornographic magazines. Customers who enter the store
approach a bookshelf, pick up books or magazines, exchange them for a sheet of paper, and then slap the faces of two Maoist hostages sitting patiently next to a book display.
The customers deliver a Nazi salute as they leave the bookstore.

In the movie’s final scene, the roving camera crew appears on a beach. They pick up a woman in a white dress and lay her on a platform along with a movie camera. The platform is raised above the beach by a crane, while the completed version of Sympathy For The Devil plays (this is the final scene in the video clip above).

I believe that Mick Jagger’s point in this song was that evil in our society was created collaboratively by the Devil acting through individual humans.

However, that is not how the song was received. Religious groups accused the Stones of devil worship or Satanism. This was bolstered by the fact that the Stones’ previous album had been titled His Satanic Majesty’s Request. Even though that album contained precious little in the way of Satanism, the title of the album was sufficient to draw criticism.

Negative press about the band intensified when one year later, a spectator was killed by Hells Angels who had been retained as crowd control while the Rolling Stones were performing at a concert at Altamont Speedway in California.

It is widely believed that the Stones were performing Sympathy For The Devil when Meredith Hunter was murdered at Altamont. It was not – the song they were playing was Under My Thumb. However, this rumor fueled the notion of the Stones as Satan-worshipers.

Whenever the Stones produce a patently offensive song, they simply claim that “It’s just rock and roll. It doesn’t mean anything.” I don’t cut the boys any slack for misogynist tunes like Under My Thumb or Stupid Girl. I believe the Stones should be severely criticized for such songs.

However, I am inclined to give the Stones the benefit of the doubt on Sympathy For The Devil. I don’t see any significant history of Satanism in the band. There are rock ‘n rollers who are on much shakier grounds – for example, Jimmy Page’s long flirtation with the sinister occultist Aleister Crowley; or even David Bowie’s fascination with Nazi memorabilia.

In any case, fifty years later the Stones are still going strong, with a surprisingly small number of personnel changes over the years. They jettisoned Brian Jones in 1969; Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor left the group at the end of 1974; and former Faces’ guitarist Ronnie Wood joined the Stones in 1975.

Bassist Bill Wyman, the oldest member of the Stones, left the group in 1993. Since then Darryl Jones has played bass on most of the Stones’ tours, although Jones is not an “official” member of the Stones.

It’s hard to imagine that the Rolling Stones are still touring, more than 50 years after the band formed. The Stones have proved to be one of the greatest and most durable rock music acts of all time.

Guns ‘N Roses, Sympathy For The Devil:

Guns ‘N Roses were an L.A. band. For about a decade from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, they were an incredibly hot and influential group. They then suffered a dramatic flame-out, and the original ensemble imploded.

In 1985, guitarist Izzy Stradlin and vocalist Axl Rose from the band Hollywood Rose joined forces with three members of L.A. Guns. The group adopted the name Guns ‘N Roses, and they are often known by the acronym GNR.

However, the three former members of L.A. Guns did not last long. GNR subsequently added lead guitarist Slash who had previously played with Hollywood Rose, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler.

This formed the “classic lineup” of Guns ‘N Roses. Below is a group photo of GNR in Oct. 1985. From L: Duff McKagan; Izzy Stradlin; Axl Rose; Slash; Steven Adler.

The band sharpened their talent and developed a fan base by working at Hollywood clubs. In 1986 they were signed to a contract with Geffen Records.

GNR’s big breakthrough came with their 1987 album, Appetite for Destruction. Initially, the album experienced disappointing sales. However, CEO David Geffen of Geffen Records persuaded MTV to place the GNR single Welcome to the Jungle in late-evening rotation.

MTV agreed to a trial: they showed the music video for Welcome to the Jungle one time, at 4 AM on a Sunday. Amazingly enough, that generated a significant demand for that song.

GNR then released a second single from that album, Sweet Child o’Mine. That song steadily climbed the charts and reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in summer 1988. Welcome to the Jungle was then re-released and made it to #7.

Over the years, Appetite for Destruction has sold over 30 million albums; this made it the best-selling debut album of all time, and made instant superstars of Guns ‘N Roses.

GNR followed this up with two albums, Appetite for Destruction I and II, that were issued on the same day in 1991 but sold separately. Together, those two albums have now sold 35 million records worldwide.

At this point, GNR had achieved the dream of every “hair band.” They were headliners in monster tours all over the world. The combination of Axl’s distinctive edgy vocals, combined with Slash’s impressive guitar solos and the band’s hard-rocking arrangements, made them a titanic hit.

But the group was developing a reputation for bad behavior almost as much as for their songs. Riots nearly broke out at various GNR shows, and at England’s Monsters of Rock festival in August 1988 two members of the audience were crushed to death by the crowd during the GNR performance.

Several band members were also having serious issues with drugs and alcohol. GNR gained a reputation for starting concerts extremely late; in some cities this led to performances being curtailed because of local curfew ordinances.

Axl Rose also became infamous for his rants during concerts whenever anything upset him – and apparently nearly anything could piss off Axl. After performances, Rose would continue his diatribes against music critics, concert organizers and rival musicians.

Steven Adler was thrown out of the band because of his addiction issues; conversely, Izzy Stradlin quit after he became sober, when he perceived that his band mates would threaten his new-found sobriety.

Below is a music video of Guns ‘N Roses performing Sympathy For The Devil.

Yes, I realize that this is not actually a live performance. It is just the audio of their record, combined with a collection of clips of GNR performing.

However, I thought it was worth including. If you can get past the big-hair-band image with the excessive use of peroxide and tattoos, and focus on the music, GNR is a most impressive rock band.

Axl Rose begins with spoken verses, but at about the 1:30 mark in the song he launches into his trademark vocals. Axl’s harsh, screaming style is easily recognizable. And Slash is an extremely talented guitarist.

The song Sympathy For The Devil was recorded as a single by Guns ‘N Roses in 1994, near the end of the life of the original band. At that point Gilby Clarke had replaced Izzy Stradlin as the group’s rhythm guitarist.

The song Sympathy For the Devil appeared in the movies Interview With The Vampire and Fallen. It was also included in the band’s Greatest Hits album.

However, shortly after releasing this song, Guns ‘N Roses pretty much disintegrated. Within a short period of time, Axl Rose was the only remaining original member in the band.  There then ensued a decade of chaos, uncertainty and turnover, while Axl worked on a new album, Chinese Democracy.

By the time Guns ‘N Roses finally released Chinese Democracy in Nov. 2008, I was long past caring about either the record or the group. The record had cost $14 million to produce, far and away the most expensive album of all time.

In their early days, GNR was an enormously successful and influential rock band. They show up on many “Greatest Bands” lists, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, their first year of eligibility. The band has sold 100 million records, and a couple of their albums are all-time best-sellers.

On the negative side, GNR was the poster child for bad behavior, particularly their frontman Axl Rose. If the band showed up at all for concerts, they invariably started late. Some of their songs were overtly sexist, and I will never forgive them for including a Charles Manson song on one of their albums.

Would I pay money to see Guns ‘N Roses perform nowadays? How does the saying go, “Fool me once, shame on you …?”

Rickie Lee Jones, Sympathy For The Devil:

Rickie Lee Jones was born in 1954 and grew up in the American West. When she was 21, she began to perform at clubs in Venice, CA.

She continued to perform through the 70s, and in 1978 she met singer Tom Waits. For a time the two were an item, and Waits helped her make contact with various people in the music business.

Below is a photo of Rickie Lee Jones, from 1981. She is wearing what at the time was her trademark beret.

In 1978 Jones was signed to Warner Brothers Records to work with producer Lenny Waronker. Her first eponymous album, released in spring 1979, was a big hit. The album made it to #3 on the Billboard Hot 200 album charts, while the single Chuck E’s In Love reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 list.

In 1980, Rickie Lee Jones was nominated for four Grammy Awards, and she won for Best New Artist. Her music was an appealing fusion of folk, blues and jazz, and she collaborated with some very talented session musicians.

Jones’ second album, the 1981 release Pirates, was also a commercial success, reaching #5 on the Billboard 200 despite not having a hit single. At this point in her career, Ms. Jones looked something like a younger version of Joni Mitchell. However, her career would never hit the heights reached by Joni.

Here is Rickie Lee Jones in a live performance of Sympathy For the Devil. This was released in 2012 on an album of covers called The Devil You Know and produced by Ben Harper.

Rickie Lee Jones gives a bluesy, folksy rendition of Sympathy For The Devil. The arrangement is quite sparse. She is accompanied by a cello and electric guitar (later in the song, the guitarist switches to keyboards).

I enjoy this as it is so radically different from the Stones’ version (and the Guns ‘N Roses tune follows the Stones’ version quite closely). So this is a welcome change.

It is typical of Rickie Lee Jones to produce a cover that gives an entirely novel take to a song. She has followed this path for the past 30 years.

In 1983, Jones moved to Paris where she focused more on covers of jazz and blues standards. She then shifted her interest towards electronic music. Her albums received critical acclaim but were not very successful commercially.

We wish Rickie Lee Jones all success. She continues to issue albums as she expands her range of musical interests. At the same time, she is involved in raising her daughter, in gardening, and in political activism. You go, girl!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Sympathy For The Devil
Wikipedia, The Rolling Stones
Wikipedia, Sympathy For The Devil (film)
Wikipedia, Jean-Luc Godard
Wikipedia, Guns ‘N Roses
Wikipedia, Rickie Lee Jones

Posted in Classic Rock, Heavy Metal, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jailhouse Rock: Elvis Presley; Queen; ZZ Top

Hello there! This is the fourth installment in our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” Here we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a movie. We also review the artist(s) who performed the song, and compare a couple of covers of the song.

This week’s blog entry is Jailhouse Rock. This is a pop song composed by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and sung by Elvis Presley. It was featured in Presley’s 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock.

Elvis Presley:

We featured Elvis Presley in several earlier blog posts; see here; here; here; here; here; and here. In this post we will briefly review his life and early career.

In rock and roll, Elvis was universally acknowledged as “The King.” Ever since he traveled from Tupelo, MS to Memphis to record a song for his mother, Elvis became a rock and roll star and then a legend.

In 1954, Sam Phillips recorded him in the Sun Records studios. Elvis’ rockabilly cover of Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right, Mama become a big hit locally from the moment that Memphis radio DJs began featuring it.

Phillips was convinced that he could make a ton of money if he could find a white artist capable of producing ‘cross-over’ hits from R&B songs by black artists. Memphis was the ideal location to search for such a cross-over musician, as producers such as Phillips and Stax Records’ co-owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axon were recording songs by both black and white artists.

During the mid-50s, Phillips produced records by artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, but Elvis was his greatest discovery.

Elvis’ big break-through record was his cover of Hound Dog. Like Jailhouse Rock, Hound Dog was composed by Leiber and Stoller. They had originally written the tune for Big Mama Thornton, who performed the song in slow down-home Delta blues style.

However, Elvis sang it as a breathless, rousing rockabilly tune. Furthermore, in live performance he threw in a few bumps and grinds that he borrowed from burlesque routines.

In June 1956, Elvis performed Hound Dog live on popular TV shows hosted by Milton Berle and Steve Allen. This was capped off with his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in September, 1956.
Presley’s first appearance that September drew a record 60 million viewers, 82.6 percent of the national TV audience, making it the most-watched broadcast of the decade.

Below is a photo of Elvis Presley in his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show on Sept. 9, 1956.

The hype surrounding Elvis’ debut on Ed Sullivan was unheard-of. As a defining moment in the history of rock music, it would not be repeated until Sullivan debuted the Beatles in 1964, and then never afterwards.

In those days, my parents did not own a TV set. So in Sept. 1956, I made sure that I could get over to a friend’s home to watch Elvis live on Ed Sullivan.

Elvis’ appearances, and particularly the spot on Ed Sullivan, made him notorious; while teenage girls screamed with delight, Elvis received venomous reviews from “serious” music critics.

As a result of this exposure, Elvis became the face of rock music. His performances, notably of Hound Dog, were seen as corrupting the values of American youth. For example,
morally outraged crowds in Nashville and St. Louis began burning him in effigy.

Not only that, but many critics insisted that Presley was a terrible singer. In retrospect, this was an absurd claim. Not only did Elvis have a terrific voice, but he was incredibly versatile – he was equally successful with blues, rockabilly, gospel and even American standard songs.

The song and movie Jailhouse Rock:

The wife of producer Pandro Berman saw Elvis on TV, and talked her husband into creating a movie that would feature Elvis. The plot was based on an original story by Nedrick Young, a black-listed writer, and had the working title The Hard Way. Berman chose Richard Thorpe to direct the movie, apparently because Thorpe had a reputation for working fast.

the great songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were commissioned to write the music for the movie. Legend has it that the studio flew the boys to New York to check on their progress on the songs.

Music publishing executive Jean Aberbach demanded to see what Leiber and Stoller had written.
When he was told that there was no material, Aberbach decided to lock the songwriters in their hotel room by blocking the door with a sofa. Aberbach told them that they would not leave the room until they had created the material. Four hours later, Leiber and Stoller had written [the four songs for the movie].

One of Leiber and Stoller’s four songs was Jailhouse Rock, and the movie was subsequently re-named after that theme song.

At this time, Leiber and Stoller were composing songs for The Coasters, and many of their Coasters tunes were tongue-in-cheek novelty items such as Charlie Brown and Yakety Yak (Don’t Talk Back). Leiber and Stoller intended Jailhouse Rock to be a similarly silly tune. However, Elvis performed it straight.

The song Jailhouse Rock describes the scene that ensued when the warden hosted a dance party in the jail.

The warden threw a party in the county jail
The prison band was there and they began to wail
The band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing
You should’ve heard them knocked-out jailbirds sing

[CHORUS] Let’s rock everybody, let’s rock
Everybody in the whole cell block
Was dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock

Spider Murphy played the tenor saxophone
Little Joe was blowin’ on the slide trombone
The drummer boy from Illinois went crash, boom, bang
The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang

Given Elvis’ stature at this point, and the effervescent nature of this song, it was clear that this would be a major hit. And it was a rather spectacular cross-over success for Elvis.

As expected, Jailhouse Rock went straight up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts; however, it also hit #1 on the country charts, and #2 on the R&B playlists.

Here’s a capsule summary of the plot for the movie Jailhouse Rock. Elvis plays a character named Vince Elliott, who is imprisoned after accidentally killing a man in a brawl. Elliott’s prison cell-mate, Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy) teaches him to play guitar.

Vince participates in an inmate talent show that is televised nationally. He receives a ton of fan mail, but Hunk hides the letters from him, and offers a “deal” that would make Vince and Hunk equal partners.

After Vince is released from prison, he gets a job at a nightclub. With the help of his girlfriend Peggy (Judy Tyler), he records a demo record. They play it for the manager of a record company, who seems unimpressed by the song. However, they later find that the manager had the song recorded by one of his own artists.

Vince accosts and beats up the manager, after which he and Peggy form their own record company. Vince is scheduled to appear on a TV show, at which the song Jailhouse Rock is played. At left is a photo of Elvis in the famous dance scene from the movie.

Elvis Presley in the dance scene from the 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock.

Once he becomes famous, Elvis’ character Vince treats Peggy quite shabbily. Eventually, his current business partner and former cellmate Hunk Houghton punches Vince in the throat.

Vince is rushed to the hospital to see if his vocal cords are permanently damaged. There, he reconciles with Peggy and they confess their love to one another. Vince then tests out his voice by singing Young and Beautiful to Peggy. Hallelujah – his voice is OK!

And here is the famous Jailhouse Rock song and dance number. Pay close attention to the dance scenes involving the convicts.

Jailhouse Rock is a unique Elvis film for several reasons. First, the songs were written by Leiber and Stoller, who had legitimate rock-music credentials.

In later Elvis movies, the songs were tossed off by hacks who frequently had zero familiarity with, or interest in, rock music. It showed, as the tunes were often total garbage.

As we noted earlier, Leiber and Stoller originally intended Jailhouse Rock as a comedy piece. Also, they stuck in some rather daring lyrics for that era. Gender studies professors go on at great length regarding the homoerotic elements in both the dance scene and the song (“you the cutest jailbird I ever did see”, etc).

Unlike his later films, where an increasingly overweight Elvis seemed to be sleep-walking his way through the picture, Presley was young, virile and actively involved in Jailhouse Rock. In fact, Elvis rejected the dance moves suggested for him and essentially choreographed his own routine.

Jailhouse Rock was rushed into production. Filming began on May 13, 1957, was concluded on June 17, and the film debuted on Oct. 17 in Memphis.

Elvis’ backup group at the time – guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana – appear in the film as Vince’s band, together with songwriter Mike Stoller who has a cameo as the band’s pianist.

It is now generally agreed that Jailhouse Rock was the best Elvis movie ever. However, at the time of its release the film was considered edgy and scandalous.
It portrayed Vince Everett as an anti-heroic character, presented a convict as a hero, used the word “hell” as a profanity, and included a scene showing Presley in bed with co-star Tyler.

As we mentioned earlier, many people at this time saw Presley as a danger to youth. His raw sexuality and the lustful appeal of rock music were viewed as a menace to decent society. So Jailhouse Rock, tame as it seems nowadays, was criticized as immoral.

There is one very sad note to this movie. Just days after filming was completed, Elvis’ co-star Judy Tyler and her husband were killed in a car crash. As a result, Elvis never watched the film.

Over the years, Jailhouse Rock has been a favorite song for groups who appreciate the early days of rock and roll. There are over 150 covers of the song.

The song was an early favorite of The Quarrymen, John Lennon’s schoolboy group that eventually morphed into The Beatles. Unfortunately, we know of no surviving recording of John singing this tune.

Jeff Beck recorded a cover of this song. It also appears as the final song in the John Belushi – Dan Aykroyd film The Blues Brothers. After the brothers are returned to prison, they perform at a dance for their fellow prisoners. The song plays while the closing credits flash across the screen.

In this post, we will include covers of Jailhouse Rock by Queen and by ZZ Top.

Queen, Jailhouse Rock:

We encountered the band Queen in a previous blog post on their song Somebody To Love. Here is a brief summary of their career.

The band Queen was a British quartet that formed in London in the early 70s. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor met up with vocalist Farrokh Bulsara. They then tried out a number of bass players until they settled on John Deacon. At that point Bulsara changed his name to Freddie Mercury, and the band adopted the name Queen.

For a couple of years, the group attempted to attract fans and score a record deal. In 1973, they signed a record contract with Trident/EMI.

For the next couple of years, Queen gained popularity in the UK but made little commercial headway in the US. All that changed dramatically with the release of the group’s fourth album, A Night At the Opera, in 1975.

That album, titled after a Marx Brothers’ movie, contained the song Bohemian Rhapsody, a pop tune written in operatic style. Mercury showed off his astonishing 4-octave vocal range in this tune.

Below are the band Queen in Sept. 1976, when their first big hit Bohemian Rhapsody was being honored. Back: John Deacon; front from L: Brian May; Roger Taylor; Freddie Mercury.

And before you could say “Beelzebub!” the group’s fame multiplied across the globe. The incredible sounds produced by Queen were a combination of special effects produced by Brian May and his home-made Red Special guitar, plus massive overdubbing by the members of the band.

Freddie Mercury’s bravura performances were just perfect for Queen’s trademark arena shows. Mercury was a riveting and highly theatrical performer.

Queen subsequently became one of the most successful rock bands in history. Their Greatest Hits album outsold even the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper blockbuster.

Queen regularly performed Jailhouse Rock as part of a medley that included several old rock standards. The song appears in concerts as early as 1970. Here is Queen performing Jailhouse Rock in 1974.

Freddie Mercury’s vocals and extravagant performing style are well suited to Jailhouse Rock; he also throws in a few lines from Be-Bop-a-Lula. And Brian May shows off some impressive guitar licks.

However, if you are paying close attention you will notice that Freddie Mercury is not actually singing Jailhouse Rock here. This YouTube video is a bit of a swindle. The audio is Queen singing Jailhouse Rock, but the video is a montage of Queen performing at the same 1974 concert.

The video is cleverly assembled. When Brian May commences a guitar solo, the picture cuts to May playing guitar; and when Freddie is singing, one sees him at the microphone. I apologize, this was the best video I could obtain.

Even as Queen became international superstars, Freddie Mercury’s health declined. As a youth, Mercury had a number of romantic relationships with women; however, he then became bisexual and later homosexual.

One gets the impression that, like so many people in the early 80s, he engaged in rather risky sexual behavior. In any case, in 1987 Freddie learned that he had HIV, and later that year found that he had contracted AIDS.

Queen stopped touring but continued to record albums in the studio. However, over time Mercury’s condition worsened. He lost a considerable amount of weight and eventually became haggard, which caused much speculation regarding his health.

Finally, on Nov. 22, 1991, Freddie Mercury issued a press release acknowledging that he had AIDS. Two days later, Mercury died at the age of 45 from bronchial pneumonia, brought on as a complication of AIDS.

Mercury’s death was devastating to his Queen bandmates and to his many fans. Brian May was particularly depressed as a result of his close friend’s demise. He checked himself into a clinic in Arizona, and later threw himself into various solo music projects.

Over the past 25 years, bassist John Deacon has retired. Roger Taylor and Brian May have re-united at various times, and have toured with guest lead vocalists.

Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. With total record sales somewhere between 150 million and 300 million, they are one of the best-selling musical acts of all time. In 2005, Brian May was named a Commander of the British Empire by the actual Queen for “services to the music industry and for charity work.”

ZZ Top, Jailhouse Rock:

ZZ Top are a blues trio from Texas. They were originally formed in 1969 by guitarist Billy Gibbons. For a very short period they had a different bassist and drummer, but fairly rapidly they acquired Dusty Hill on bass and Frank Beard on drums. They have stuck with that lineup for the past 45 years.

Gibbons was inspired by artists such as B.B. King and Z.Z. Hill. He quickly settled on ZZ Top as the name for his group. Initially, the group was unable to land a recording contract with an American label, so they signed with London Records.

Billy Gibbons circa 1973.

At left is a photo of Billy Gibbons at the start of his career.  Fans of ZZ Top may not recognize this guy, as his appearance has changed dramatically (see below).

The group’s first big splash was in 1973 with their album Tres Hombres. That record contained the single La Grange, which referenced the notorious brothel The Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas. This was the establishment that inspired the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

La Grange established a formula from which ZZ Top have never deviated. Billy Gibbons lays down a driving, thumping blues guitar line, while Dusty Hill chimes in on bass, and Frank Beard complements with a persistent drumbeat.

Another ZZ Top trademark is the appearance of sexual double-entendres in their lyrics. This is evident in songs such as Tube Snake Boogie and Gimme All Your Lovin’.

From 1977-79, the group went on two years’ hiatus after touring nearly non-stop for the preceding four years. Billy and Dusty took advantage of the down time to grow chest-length beards, which have become their signature look. Below is a photo of ZZ Top in 1984. From L: Dusty Hill; Frank Beard; Billy Gibbons.

Probably the most successful album from ZZ Top was the 1983 release Eliminator. That album contained four hit singles, including in particular Legs and Sharp Dressed Man. This was the era of MTV, and Sharp Dressed Man won an MTV Video Music Award.

The album Eliminator marked a new phase for ZZ Top, as it prominently featured synthesizer and distorted guitar sounds.  Also, their music videos portrayed ZZ Top as arguably the hippest dudes on the planet.

Here is a live performance of Jailhouse Rock by ZZ Top. Their version of this song originally appeared on their 1975 Fandango! album.

This concert took place at Moncton Casino in New Brunswick, Canada in Nov. 2013.  Here, Dusty Hill performs on lead vocals, and provides the bass to Billy Gibbons’ thumping blues guitar. ZZ Top slow down the pace in Jailhouse Rock considerably from Elvis’ iconic version.

Over the years, ZZ Top has stuck with their recipe for success. This has garnered a steady string of hits for the band over the past few decades. Critics complain that ZZ Top’s hit songs all sound suspiciously similar; however, their loyal fans have made ZZ Top rock superstars.

Their work has brought them many honors, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. Over the years, ZZ Top have sold more than 50 million records.

So boys, keep on boogieing because “every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp-dressed man.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Jailhouse Rock (song)
Wikipedia, Jailhouse Rock (film)
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley
Rolling Stone magazine, Jan. 28, 2016: Elvis Presley on TV: 10 Unforgettable Broadcasts
Wikipedia, Queen (band)
Wikipedia, ZZ Top

Posted in Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Rockabilly | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tiny Dancer: Elton John; Tim McGraw; John Frusciante

Hello there! This is the third installment in our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” In this series, we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a major movie. As is our custom, we will also review the artist(s) that performed the song, and we will compare a couple of covers of the song.

Our focus today is on Tiny Dancer, a lovely pop song written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. It was featured in the 2000 movie Almost Famous, written and directed by Cameron Crowe.

The two covers we will review are by Tim McGraw and by John Frusciante.

Elton John, Tiny Dancer:

Elton John is one of the most productive and successful pop artists of all time. We have previously reviewed his cover of Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, and his song Rocket Man. Here, we will give a brief review of his life and career.

Elton John was born Reginald Dwight in a suburb of London in 1947. He adopted the stage name “Elton John” as a composite of Elton Dean, saxophonist in his first band, and blues singer and mentor Long John Baldry.

At age 11, Elton John was awarded a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Elton’s recollection is that although he was able to play many compositions after hearing them just one time, he was not a diligent student and was not particularly attracted to classical music. Elton subsequently left high school at age 17 to pursue a career in pop music.

Below is a photo of Elton John in 1972; at right is Marc Bolan of the group T Rex.

A unique feature of Elton John’s career was his decades-long collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. The two were introduced in 1967 when each of them answered an ad for musicians in the British magazine New Musical Express.

Following the first big Taupin-John hit Your Song in 1970, Elton John embarked on an incredibly productive and versatile career. During the 70s he came out with one blockbuster album after another. Taupin and John produced ballads, rocking tunes and funky cross-over hits.

Tiny Dancer was a song on Elton John’s fourth album, the 1971 release Madman Across the Water. Bernie Taupin has said that the lyrics for Tiny Dancer were meant as a tribute to the many beautiful women whom he met on a 1970 trip to California.

The song describes a lovely West Coast woman who hangs out with the members of a band.

Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band
Pretty eyed, pirate smile, you’ll marry a music man
Ballerina, you must have seen her dancing in the sand
And now she’s in me, always with me, tiny dancer in my hand

Jesus freaks out in the street
Handing tickets out for God
Turning back she just laughs
The boulevard is not that bad.

… But oh how it feels so real
Lying here with no one near
Only you and you can hear me
When I say softly, slowly

[CHORUS] Hold me closer tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
You had a busy day today

As was their custom, Bernie Taupin would write a series of lyrics and mail them to Elton. John would then open the package and read Taupin’s lyrics.

Sitting at his piano, Elton would attempt to improvise a song on the spot to correspond with Taupin’s lyrics. Elton claims that he would move on to the next set of lyrics if he did not succeed within an hour.

Amazingly enough, Taupin and John were able to collaborate on over 100 songs in this manner. They never composed in the same location, and yet seemed to share a remarkable chemistry.

Here is a rare video of Elton John discussing the song Tiny Dancer. Seated at his famous white piano, Elton outlines his thought processes upon reading Taupin’s lines. By the way, this interview took place before the song was recorded.

Isn’t this fascinating? Elton discusses the verses and the chorus. He describes how he decided to re-organize Taupin’s lyrics, and then sings a couple of verses while playing the melody on his piano.

Elton talks about the distinct change in style between the verses and the chorus. This is a rare and revealing glimpse at the completely unique Taupin-John collaborative process.

The song Tiny Dancer has a fascinating history. It was released as a single in the U.S. in 1972, and for an Elton John song, it pretty much bombed, never reaching higher than #41 on the Billboard pop charts. It was considered sufficiently uninteresting that it was never even released as a single in the U.K.

The prevailing wisdom at the time was that the song did not contain a “hook,” and that it takes a long time to get to the chorus. However, this argument is bogus; as we will see from the scene in Almost Famous, the song has a compelling structure. The verses build slowly but inexorably to a rousing chorus.

Over the years, Tiny Dancer has become one of the best-loved songs from the Taupin – John catalog. A couple of years ago Rolling Stone magazine asked readers to name their favorite Elton John songs, and Tiny Dancer came out #1 in that list!

So the song has held up remarkably well over the years. From a tune that was considered too weak to release as a single in England, it is now a staple on classic rock radio stations.

Almost Famous and Tiny Dancer:

Almost Famous is a 2000 film written and directed by Cameron Crowe. It chronicles the experiences of a (very) young man who writes about rock bands for Rolling Stone magazine, a fictional band Sweetwater that is the subject of an article by the journalist, and a groupie named Penny Lane who is traveling with Sweetwater.

The movie is highly autobiographical. Cameron Crowe was hired as a journalist by Rolling Stone magazine when he was only 16 years old. Crowe traveled with and wrote articles about Poco, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin and the Eagles, and the group Sweetwater is a thinly-disguised composite of those  bands.

Poster for the 2000 movie Almost Famous.

At left is the movie poster for Almost Famous. This film was the break-out role for Goldie Hawn’s daughter Kate Hudson, who played a worldly-wise aging groupie who is having an affair with a rock guitarist. In addition, the performances by Frances McDormand (who plays the young protagonist’s mother) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as acerbic rock critic Lester Bangs) were also outstanding.

The main character in Almost Famous is William Miller (Patrick Fugit). He manages to escape his over-protective mother and garner an assignment from Rolling Stone magazine, whose editor was under the mistaken impression that Miller was much older than 16 years.

William convinces the magazine to assign him to travel with Sweetwater and write an article about them, and he strikes up a friendship with their lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Miller also develops a major schoolboy crush on Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

Penny realizes that she has reached an age where she will soon have to abandon her life as a groupie. Although she loves Hammond deeply, it is clear that she has no long-term future with the married guitarist.

Penny is hurt by the callous treatment that she endures from Hammond and the members of the band. She is also humiliated and insulted by Hammond’s wife, who joins the tour at one point.

After this incident, Penny takes an overdose of Quaaludes, but her life is saved by William’s intervention. Meanwhile, William keeps trying to publish his story about Sweetwater. Russell, worried that revelations in William’s work might damage the band’s image, tells the magazine that William’s story is false.

Eventually, with help from Penny, William is able to confront Russell and gain permission to print his story, which appears “on the cover of the Rolling Stone” (to quote a song by Dr. Hook).

Here is a clip from Almost Famous that features the song Tiny Dancer. The members of Sweetwater board their tour bus following a gig where Russell became seriously wasted on LSD. Following a series of interpersonal incidents, there is a great deal of tension and everyone sets off seriously bummed.

However, the song Tiny Dancer is playing as the band departs. Gradually, everyone begins nodding and humming along with the tune. Someone begins to sing along; eventually, everyone on the bus chimes in, and even the hung-over Russell joins in on the chorus.

William tells Penny that he needs to return home, as his mother is frantic at his absence. Penny tells him “You are home,” and William shares an intimate moment with Penny.

What a great, uplifting scene. I can personally attest that singing along to Tiny Dancer will raise your spirits – try it yourself!

Almost Famous had an interesting history. It received considerable critical acclaim; for example, Roger Ebert rated it the best movie of the year. Cameron Crowe won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and the film won Golden Globe awards for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Kate Hudson.

Various elements of Crowe’s story had the ring of truth to them. In fact, several of the bands Crowe had covered claimed that they were the inspiration for the fictional Sweetwater.

For example, Gregg Allman confirmed that the scene in the movie where the stoned Sweetwater guitarist jumps off a roof into a swimming pool was based on a real incident involving his brother Duane Allman.
“the jumping off the roof into the pool, that was Duane—from the third floor of a place called the Travelodge in San Francisco.”

However, the movie was somewhat of a commercial flop; it grossed less than $50 million worldwide, against a production budget of $60 million. Too bad – my colleague Glenn Gass describes Almost Famous as “an almost perfect movie about a rock ‘n roll band.”

Now back to Elton John. Here he is singing Tiny Dancer. This is from a 1986 concert in Sydney, Australia.

This is a fascinating performance. Elton is dressed in his best Mozart look-alike costume, complete with beauty mark and powdered wig. He is backed up by his band, featuring lead guitarist and arranger Davey Johnstone. Many of those musicians have been with Elton for up to 45 years.

In addition, Elton is accompanied by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The only touch that might be missing from the original recording is a pedal steel guitar, and even that might be present here, though I am unable to verify that.

Over a nearly 50-year span, Elton John has established one of the greatest, most productive and enduring careers in rock music. He
has sold more than 300 million records, making him one of the best-selling music artists in the world. He has more than fifty Top 40 hits, including seven consecutive No. 1 US albums, 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 Top 10, four No. 2 and nine No. 1. For 31 consecutive years (1970–2000) he had at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100. His single “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”/”Candle in the Wind 1997” sold over 33 million copies worldwide and is “the best-selling single of all time”.

The period 1970 -1990 was what I call Elton John’s ‘manic phase.’ In addition to his phenomenal productivity, Elton trotted out some of the most flamboyant costumes in the music industry.

Nothing seemed too outrageous for Elton – gigantic embossed glasses; feather boas; ruffles and lace; you name it, Elton appeared in it. In 1988 some 2,000 items of his memorabilia were auctioned off at Sotheby’s and raised $20 million.

During that period, Elton John’s tremendous productivity and over-the-top antics were fueled by a serious cocaine habit. At the same time, Elton was also dealing with an eating disorder, and trying to sort out his sexual preferences.

In a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone magazine Elton admitted to being bisexual. Following a brief marriage and subsequent divorce, Elton came out as gay in 1988. In 1993 he began a relationship with Canadian advertising executive David Furnish, that culminated in their marriage in 2014. This relationship seems to have brought stability and happiness to Elton.

Elton John has been an outspoken and articulate advocate for the GLBT community and in particular for AIDS sufferers. He has been quite courageous about combating public prejudice in this area, particularly since his advocacy might have negatively affected his career. His Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS research and HIV/AIDS research and education.

It would take an entire blog post just to list Elton John’s myriad honors and awards. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998. In addition, Elton John
has received six Grammy Awards, five Brit Awards … an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Tony Award, a Disney Legend award, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.

At age 70, Elton John continues to perform today, one of the most successful pop stars of all time. Keep on rocking, Sir Elton!

Tim McGraw, Tiny Dancer:

Tim McGraw is a country music superstar. He is also half of a country-music power couple, as he has been married to country music star Faith Hill since 1996. Below are Tim McGraw and Faith Hill at the Academy of Country Music Awards show in 2017.

Tim McGraw was born in 1967. His father was Tug McGraw, a relief pitcher for the New York Mets. However, McGraw was raised by his mother and stepfather, and only realized that Tug McGraw was his biological father when he discovered his birth certificate at age 11.

Initially, Tug McGraw denied that he was Tim’s father, but Tug eventually acknowledged his paternity when Tim was 18. Tim was a fine baseball player, but a knee injury ended his athletic career.

Tim then began playing guitar, dropped out of college, and moved to Nashville in search of a career in country music. He broke through in a big way with his album Not a Moment Too Soon. This became the biggest-selling country album of 1994.

His breakthrough album won 1994 Academy of Country Music honors for Tim McGraw for Album of the Year and Top New Male Vocalist. After that, everything has just kept on coming up roses for Mr. McGraw.

In 1996 McGraw headlined a major Spontaneous Combustion tour. His supporting act was country star Faith Hill. And “spontaneous combustion” was an appropriate term, as Ms. Hill broke off her engagement to her record producer, and in Oct. 1996 McGraw and Hill were married.

Here is a live performance of Tim McGraw singing Elton John’s Tiny Dancer.

Isn’t this enjoyable? Tim McGraw has a great voice, and he does a terrific job with this song. The arrangement is straightforward – McGraw essentially copies Elton John’s own orchestration.

You can see that Tiny Dancer is a great crossover hit; it works just fine as a country song. And you can see that the audience loves it; just as in the film Almost Famous, the crowd joins in to sing along with the chorus.

There is also video of a concert featuring a duet between Elton John and Tim McGraw, but I chose to go with this one, as I liked the audience participation here.

The song Tiny Dancer was released on McGraw’s 2002 album She’s My Kind of Rain. That album was unusual in that McGraw’s road band the Dancehall Doctors backed him up in the studio.

“What’s unusual about that?” you might ask. After all, it is standard for rock vocalists to be accompanied by their band on records. However, country music has traditionally used studio musicians to record albums, and to employ a different group on the road. So McGraw’s use of his own band in the studio was considered something novel.

Well, since they hooked up both Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have remained country superstars. Their joint tour in 2006 was the biggest-grossing tour in the history of country music, and was named “Major Tour of the Year” by Pollstar magazine, beating out lightweights such as Madonna and the Rolling Stones.

McGraw continues to break new ground. His duet with hip-hop artist Nelly became a gigantic cross-over hit, and he has also recorded songs with the hard-rocking group Def Leppard.

Tim McGraw is one of those people who seem to excel at everything they attempt. In the past decade or two, McGraw has taken on some acting roles. He received critical acclaim for his role in the 2004 high school football film Friday Night Lights, and also appeared in the 2009 movie The Blind Side.

In 2010, McGraw appeared as the husband and manager of (fictional) country singer Kelly Canter (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) in the movie Country Strong.

By all accounts, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill seem to have one of those extremely rare successful celebrity marriages. We wish them all the best, and hope they and their three daughters continue to prosper.

John Frusciante, Tiny Dancer:

John Frusciante is a guitarist who was born in 1970. He is best known for his two stints as lead guitarist with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

That group had initially formed in LA in 1983. It consisted of lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis, bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary, drummer Jack Irons and lead guitarist Hillel Slovak.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers developed a local following on the West Coast, but their albums achieved only modest success. Then guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988, and drummer Jack Irons left after he experienced severe depression following Slovak’s death.

The Chili Peppers then replaced Irons and Slovak with drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante. Frusciante had been something of a child prodigy on guitar, and was only 18 when he joined the Peppers.

Below are Flea (L) and John Frusciante (R) in 2016.

One of the reasons that Frusciante was signed by the Chili Peppers is that he had been obsessed with the work of former guitarist Hillel Slovak. Frusciante knew all of Slovak’s work by heart, and was therefore a natural addition for the band.

In 1989, the Chili Peppers released their album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. This album became a sensational smash hit. It sold over 12 million copies worldwide, and immediately established the group as one of the most prominent rock bands to combine the genres of funk and hip-hop. Rolling Stone magazine includes this album in their list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

The Chili Peppers subsequently embarked on a tour to promote their album, and opening acts on their tour were Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins. Wow — nothing like assembling every hot young band in the country for your album tour!

With Frusciante as their lead guitarist, the Red Hot Chili Peppers cemented their reputation as one of the great jam bands of the 90s. John was quite open about his goals as a rock musician. He wanted to experience the trifecta of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” As lead guitarist for a hot band, sex was no problem for Frusciante. He also quite deliberately developed a drug habit, partly to emulate his bandmate Flea.

Frusciante noted that Flea was a prodigious user of marijuana, and was seriously stoned at nearly all the band’s performances. So Frusciante decided to take up drugs; unfortunately, he chose heroin, and we will discuss the consequences of this choice later in this post.

As time went by Frusciante’s drug use escalated, to the point where he left the band in 1992. He continued to pursue solo work for the next six years, but was frequently incapacitated by his addictions.

Here is John Frusciante in a live performance of Tiny Dancer.

Frusciante appears solo here, accompanying himself on electric guitar. The audience in Hamburg is extremely appreciative; they can be seen swaying their arms in unison during the song.

Frusciante includes only the chorus here, so the video segment takes only one and a half minutes. As a result, it is difficult to assess Frusciante’s musical prowess just from this short clip.

Earlier we had mentioned that drug problems contributed heavily to Frusciante’s first departure from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We try to keep this blog at a “PG-13” level, but it is instructive to chronicle the severe nature of Frusciante’s addiction.

Just before Frusciante left the Chili Peppers in 1992 and during the six years before he re-joined the group in 1998, Frusciante went through an extremely difficult period.

Frusciante is quite candid about his drug dependency; initially, heroin use was a conscious choice as he felt that it tended to lift his spirits and provide him with spiritual insight.

However, Frusciante’s continuing dependency on heroin put him in very dire straits. In 1993, Frusciante and actor River Phoenix embarked on an extended drug binge. This ended when Phoenix commenced having seizures and subsequently died.

Frusciante’s drug use continued for the next few years, when his health deteriorated in a frightening way.
An article in the New Times LA described Frusciante as “a skeleton covered in thin skin” who at the nadir of his addictions nearly died from a blood infection. His arms became fiercely scarred from improperly shooting heroin and cocaine, leaving permanent abscesses. He spent the next three years holed up in his Hollywood Hills home, the walls of which were badly damaged and covered in graffiti.

Eventually, in 1998 Frusciante checked into a drug rehab clinic to turn his life around. Upon his arrival at the Las Encinas clinic in Pasadena,
he was diagnosed with a potentially lethal oral infection, which could only be alleviated by removing all of his rotten teeth and replacing them with dental implants. He also received skin grafts to help repair the abscesses on his ravaged arms.

Frusciante has been able to maintain his sobriety with the help of yoga practice. In 1998, he re-joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the group’s first album after his return, Californication, sold over 16 million copies worldwide.

Frusciante remained with the Chili Peppers until 2004, when he left the band to pursue a solo career. He is widely regarded as an exceptional guitarist. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at #18 in their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

In 2012, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although Frusciante was one of the inductees, he did not attend the induction ceremony. We wish John Frusciante a long life and continued sobriety.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Tiny Dancer
Wikipedia, Elton John
Wikipedia, Bernie Taupin
Wikipedia, Almost Famous
Wikipedia, Cameron Crowe
Wikipedia, Tim McGraw
Wikipedia, John Frusciante

Posted in Country music, Pop Music, Rock and roll, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stayin’ Alive: The Bee Gees [Saturday Night Fever]; Bruce Springsteen; NSYNC

Hello there! This is a continuation of our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” In this series, we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a major movie.

Our second song in this series is Stayin’ Alive. This is one of the most memorable disco songs written by the Gibb brothers. It was featured in the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever, directed by John Badham and starring John Travolta.

We will start with a brief review of the career of The Bee Gees. We will then discuss  the movie Saturday Night Fever, with an emphasis on the importance of music in the film, and in particular the song Stayin’ Alive. We will then wrap up with two covers of this song, one by Bruce Springsteen and the second by NSYNC.

The Bee Gees, Stayin’ Alive:

The Bee Gees were an extraordinary pop group. Over their long career, there were arguably three distinctly different manifestations of this trio of brothers.

The Gibb family lived in Manchester, England. They had five children; the oldest was a girl, Lesley, then four brothers including Barry, fraternal twins Robin and Maurice, and Andy.

While they were in England, the brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice started a music group called The Rattlesnakes. Similar to The Beatles, this was initially a skiffle group that morphed into a rock and roll band. The Gibb family then moved to Queensland, Australia.

In Australia, the Gibb boys again performed as a trio. A Brisbane DJ re-named the boys “The BGs.” Although legend has it that The Bee Gees name stands for “The Brothers Gibb,” the initial name referred to the fact that the DJ Bill Gates, race-car driver Bill Goode (the boys used to perform at the Redcliffe Speedway in Brisbane) and Barry Gibb all had initials “BG.”

The group subsequently changed their name to The Bee Gees, and added lead guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen to the ensemble. Although the band developed a loyal following in Australia, they returned to the U.K. in early 1967 because of their inability to land a major record contract in Australia.

Below is a photo of the Bee Gees circa 1968. Back row from L: Vince Melouney, Maurice Gibb, Barry Gibb; front row Robin Gibb, Colin Petersen.

They mailed a demo tape to the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. Epstein’s family owned a major record store, so Epstein passed the tape along to one of the record store employees, Robert Stigwood. Stigwood would become the group’s manager and promoter over the next several decades.

The Bee Gees’ first big hit was New York Mining Disaster 1941. That song was marketed using a bit of trickery: the record label was blank except for the title of the song.

As a result, a number of DJs assumed that the song was by the Beatles. This had both positive and negative consequences.  On the plus side, the song received considerably more airplay than it would have from a new, unknown group.

The negative result was that the Bee Gees were constantly compared to the Beatles. This was unfortunate, as no group could live up to such standards. The Bee Gees were a fine ensemble – all of them wrote their own songs, their work was sophisticated and memorable, they had lovely voices and impressive harmonies – but they were not the Beatles.

For the next three years The Bee Gees enjoyed a successful run as a pop group. They developed a fan base heavily loaded with young teeny-boppers, and their songs and albums generally landed in the Billboard Top 20.

However, in 1969 tensions surfaced in the band. Initially, Robin Gibb’s beautiful high tenor voice had frequently been the lead in Bee Gees’ songs. As time went by, Barry became more frequently the lead vocalist, and Robin believed that producer/manager Robert Stigwood was favoring Barry.

In the Bee Gees, Barry and Robin were the most prolific songwriters, and Robin and Barry took most of the lead vocals. However, Maurice was by far the most versatile musician of the three: he played
bass guitar, acoustic guitar, lead guitar, harmonica, piano, organ, mellotron, keyboard, synthesizer and drums.
Later in the group’s career, Maurice became the musical director for the Bee Gees.

By 1970, the Bee Gees had disbanded, and it looked as though they might never re-form. However, one year later the brothers again hooked up and released a couple of successful albums.

But by 1973 the hits had again ceased and the group’s fortunes seriously declined. In 1975, Eric Clapton suggested that the band re-locate to Miami, where Clapton was then recording. It was here that the boys had an epiphany.

Barry Gibb discovered that he could sing falsetto really, really well. So the Bee Gees began recording disco songs, and they enlisted the services of producers Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson.

The Bee Gees during their “disco” era.

The first big Bee Gees disco song was Jive Talkin’; this was followed by You Should Be Dancing. At this point the Bee Gees began the second major phase of their career — as disco superstars.

At left are Robin, Barry and Maurice in the midst of their disco era. There they are – gold tops; open shirts revealing hairy chests; and gold chains. And at this point, the Bee Gees’ story intersects that of the film  Saturday Night Fever.

Saturday Night Fever and Stayin’ Alive:

In 1976, British writer Nik Cohn wrote an article for New York magazine called Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night. It was ostensibly about the young people who frequented New York’s disco scene.

Cohn has now admitted that he fabricated that article.
A newcomer to the United States and a stranger to the disco lifestyle, Cohn was unable to make any sense of the subculture he had been assigned to write about.
The lead character in Cohn’s story, who became Tony Manero in the movie Saturday Night Fever, was based on one of Cohn’s acquaintances.

Cohn’s story was then turned into a movie script. The lead character, Tony Manero, has a dead-end job at a hardware store and lives with his parents. Tony’s major outlet is dancing at a local disco club, where he is a star.

A local girl Annette has a crush on Tony and is thrilled when he agrees to be her partner at a dance contest. However, at the contest Tony becomes attracted to Stephanie, who is an elegant dancer. Stephanie agrees to be a dance partner with Tony, but on the condition that their relationship remain strictly platonic.

Tony and Stephanie win the dance contest, but Tony is convinced that a Puerto Rican couple were better dancers, and that his victory was the result of a racially-tainted decision. After the contest, Stephanie and Tony get into an argument, and he attempts to rape her.

Meanwhile, Tony’s friend Bobby C is in desperate circumstances. His girlfriend is pregnant, and Bobby is trying to avoid being forced to marry her. Furthermore, Bobby and his mates are involved in an altercation with a Hispanic gang.

Tony, Bobby C and their friends frequently hang out on the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge. The bridge has a symbolic function as it links Tony’s run-down neighborhood in Brooklyn with the more desirable suburban areas of Staten Island.

One evening, when the boys climb around the chains of the bridge, Bobby C undertakes some risky stunts. In an outburst, he relates his frustrations and berates Tony for abandoning his friend. Then he slips from the cables and falls to his death in the water.

At the end of the movie, Tony apologizes to Stephanie, and states his determination to move to Manhattan in an attempt to re-start his life. Stephanie forgives Tony and the two agree to be friends.

The Bee Gees’ manager Robert Stigwood was executive producer for Saturday Night Fever. He contacted the Bee Gees and suggested that they write some songs for his movie.  The Gibb brothers were in Paris at that time, and that is where Barry, Robin and Maurice wrote Stayin’ Alive and several other songs.

Stayin’ Alive describes a macho fellow who has succeeded despite all obstacles placed in his way. However, the singer’s sense of desperation is highlighted by the lines “I’m goin’ nowhere, somebody help me.”

Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk
I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk
Music loud and women warm, I’ve been kicked around
Since I was born

And now it’s all right, it’s okay
And you may look the other way
We can try to understand
The New York Times’ effect on man

Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive

The disco beat is pulsating and insistent in this song, which features Barry Gibb’s falsetto lead vocals as well as the Bee Gees’ trademark close harmonies.

Here are the opening credits from Saturday Night Fever. They feature John Travolta (as Tony Manero) strutting down the street while carrying a can of paint, as the Bee Gees’ song Stayin’ Alive plays.

This iconic and memorable opening scene sets the tone for the entire movie. It vividly displays Manero’s determination and macho character, at the same time that it highlights the frustrations of his life.

A distinctive feature of Stayin’ Alive is the persistent, never-varying drum beat. This resulted from a “fix” to a problem that occurred during the recording of the song.

In the middle of the recording sessions, drummer Dennis Bryon’s mother passed away, and he left to take care of funeral arrangements. The Bee Gees and their producers lifted a few bars of the drum part from the already-recorded song Night Fever.

They created a “loop” from that drum part, and used that loop throughout Stayin’ Alive. This accounts for the unnaturally steady drum-beat in Stayin’ Alive. As a sly joke, the group listed the “drummer” for Stayin’ Alive as “Bernard Lupe.”

When the song became a smash hit, several other bands inquired after the services of “Mr. Lupe,” only to discover that he did not exist.

It turns out that the beat frequency in Stayin’ Alive (104 beats per minute) is very close to the 110-120 beats per minute recommended for people performing cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

As a result, Stayin’ Alive is commonly used when teaching CPR.  Apparently it has been shown that people administering CPR perform better if they hum Stayin’ Alive as they apply chest compressions. Do they also need to sing falsetto and wear gold chains?

Here are the Bee Gees in a live performance of Stayin’ Alive.

This took place in 1989 at the National Tennis Center in Melbourne. Barry Gibb sings the entire song in falsetto except for the line “I’m goin’ nowhere, somebody help me.” The audience is extremely appreciative of their Aussie mates.

Well, the Bee Gees rode the crest of the disco wave during the late 70s.  In fact, they could be called the crew of the Good Ship Disco.  At one point, the top five songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart consisted of three Bee Gees’ songs, and two other songs from the Saturday Night Fever album that were written by the Gibb brothers.  This had never happened before.

The Saturday Night Fever album stayed at #1 on the album charts for 25 consecutive weeks. But eventually the public tired of disco music, as well as the gold chains and the excessive drug use at disco clubs such as New York’s Club 54.

And at that point the Bee Gees’ career went down with the ship.  People even seemed to hold the brothers Gibb responsible for the excesses of the disco era.  Although that was patently unfair, after the heights of their career during the period 1975-1979, the Bee Gees did not place another single in the top 20 until 1989.

Fortunately, the boys continued to find commercial success during this period, but as solo artists, or as songwriters and producers for artists such as Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick and Kenny Rogers.

In the early 1980s, the Gibb brothers released solo albums and continued  songwriting and producing.  In 1987 they re-united and produced an album that was a big hit in the U.K. and Australia but had disappointing U.S. sales.

The Bee Gees issued several compilation albums, including two Greatest Hits albums that became colossal best-sellers.  In 1997, the Bee Gees performed a live concert called One Night Only at Las Vegas.  It was intended to be their final performance, as Barry was suffering from serious back and arthritis problems, and believed that he would no longer be able to play guitar.

However, that concert was so well received that the Bee Gees subsequently reprised that concert in London and Sydney.  Also in 1997 the Bee Gees were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 2002, Maurice died of a heart attack while awaiting emergency surgery for a strangulated intestine.  This was a great shock to the brothers, and they subsequently retired the name Bee Gees.

Brothers Barry and Robin continued with occasional solo performances over the next few years, but in 2009 they returned to performing together.  However, in 2011 it was revealed that Robin was suffering from liver cancer.

Robin subsequently died in May, 2012.  Since that time Barry has performed occasionally, sometimes accompanied by his son Stephen Gibb.

So, the Bee Gees had three very different careers.  The first was as folk-pop rockers, much like the British Invasion group The Hollies.  The second was as disco superstars, in the Saturday Night Fever days.  Later in life, they returned with more pop songs, but they also performed oldies from earlier eras.

My most vivid memory of the Bee Gees will be from their disco phase, with Barry blasting away in falsetto while the brothers contributed their incredible close harmonies.  Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive …

Bruce Springsteen, Stayin’ Alive:

Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest rock and rollers of the modern era. We discussed Bruce and his career in an earlier blog post on the song Brown-Eyed Girl, so here we will provide a short bio of his life and career.

Springsteen grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s, where his father was largely unemployed and his mother worked as a legal secretary. Springsteen’s maternal grandfather had emigrated to the U.S. from Naples, Italy.

Springsteen was raised Catholic and attended a parochial school through middle school. Although he rebelled against both the religious doctrine and the discipline enforced by the nuns, this upbringing made a lasting impression on him.

Here is a photo of Bruce Springsteen performing in the mid-70s. From L: Clarence Clemons; Bruce Springsteen; Steven van Zandt; Gary Tallent.

After graduating from high school, Springsteen participated in a number of different groups. He gathered a following along the Jersey coast, and began assembling a backup group that would eventually become the E Street Band.

Bruce Springsteen’s first big break came in 1972, when legendary producer John Hammond signed him to a contract with Columbia Records, just like Hammond had signed Bob Dylan a decade earlier.

Springsteen’s songs tend to focus on social issues such as the plight of middle class Americans, veterans, and the poor. Early in his career, Springsteen was the recipient of much critical praise. Furthermore, he developed a cult following due to the energy and exuberance of his live performances.

This led to Springsteen’s nickname “The Boss,” even before he had achieved any notable commercial success. However, in his early career Springsteen’s record sales were somewhat disappointing, and matched neither the promise of his reviews nor the enthusiasm of his fans.

His first big single was Born To Run, the title cut of Springsteen’s third album released in 1975. Although the song only made it to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and performed rather poorly outside the U.S.), it established Springsteen as a young artist to watch.

I was conflicted over Born To Run. The song featured an impressive “wall of sound” instrumental backing, with a great climax. And the lyrics were terrific, bringing to mind some of the best work by artists such as Bob Dylan and Billy Joel.

Furthermore, the album was packed with similar songs that have become staples of “classic-rock” radio stations. However, I thought that the production values on the record were third-rate, and I waited to see if Bruce would live up to the hype.

Well, Bruce succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. His 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. established him as one of the great rockers of his generation. Like Born To Run, the album was chock-full of hits – in fact, seven of the songs on this album made the Billboard Top 10 list. Furthermore, the advent of music videos meant that millions of Americans were introduced to Springsteen’s energy in live performance.

Moreover, on the Born In The U.S.A. album the production values were superb. Springsteen’s E Street Band was in great form, and the album sold like hotcakes, with over 30 million units sold worldwide.

A delicious irony is that politicians tried to jump on the bandwagon, by saluting what they believed to be the patriotism expressed in the title cut Born in the U.S.A. For example, Ronald Reagan stated that
“America’s future rests in … the message of hope in the songs of … New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen.”

Had Reagan ever actually listened to the song, he would have realized that Born in the U.S.A. contained no such “message of hope.” The song described a disillusioned American veteran returning from Vietnam to find that no one cared, and unable to land a job.

So here is Bruce Springsteen in a live performance of Stayin’ Alive.

This took place in Brisbane, Australia on Feb. 26, 2014. Bruce brings the Aussies his own version of the great Bee Gees disco song, which is more of a jazzy re-mix. The song begins with a trumpet cadenza, features solos in the middle from trumpet, trombone and saxophone, and also includes a string section presumably borrowed from a local symphony orchestra.

Bruce’s voice is in great form here, and he gives his audience the large-orchestra treatment that perhaps only he can afford to provide nowadays.

At this point, Bruce Springsteen is a living American treasure. He continues to release albums, varying between hard-rocking records backed by the E Street Band, and folk records inspired by artists such as Woody Guthrie.

Springsteen’s live performances also tend to be epic events. He and the E Street Band generally appear in stadiums or major venues, and his energetic concerts last up to three hours or more.

The musicianship is first-rate, and Springsteen’s energy does not flag – he still produces the dynamic live show that was his calling-card from the earliest stages of his career. Bruce, my hope is that you continue “stayin’ alive” for a long, long time!

NSYNC, Stayin’ Alive:

NSYNC was a “boy band” created by the notorious con man Lou Pearlman, who was also the creator of The Backstreet Boys. Before discussing NSYNC, we will briefly review Pearlman’s career.

Promoter Lou Pearlman with his group The Backstreet Boys.

Lou Pearlman was born in 1954 in Flushing, NY. He was the cousin of Art Garfunkel. Pearlman had a deep interest in flying, and started various air charter companies.

At left is a photo of Pearlman hanging with his musical group The Backstreet Boys.

For those of you familiar with boy bands, note that the Backstreet Boys look more or less exactly like New Kids On The Block, who in turn have an amazing resemblance to NSYNC.

Pearlman’s most lucrative scheme was an airline and travel service company called Trans Continental Airlines. Pearlman managed to persuade a large number of investors to purchase shares in this company.

Unfortunately, the company existed only on paper. To mislead investors, Pearlman created falsified statements from the FDIC, AIG and Lloyd’s of London. He also used financial statements from the auditing firm Cohen and Siegel to obtain bank loans. Alas, Cohen and Siegel did not exist.

In 2007, the state of Florida charged Pearlman with operating a massive Ponzi scheme. In response, Pearlman fled the country, and was subsequently arrested in Indonesia. Pearlman eventually pled guilty to a series of charges, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Although Pearlman’s sentence included reduction in time served for every million dollars that was returned to investors, very little money from Pearlman’s scheme was ever recovered. Pearlman suffered a stroke in prison, and later died in 2016 from cardiac arrest at the age of 62.

Although Lou Pearlman was a notorious fraud and con man, he had a genuine interest in music and used a substantial amount of money from his Ponzi scheme to create a couple of boy bands.

Pearlman’s bands, The Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, were formed in exactly the same manner. Pearlman copied in considerable detail the methods used to create and merchandise the boy band New Kids On The Block.  The creators of that band had themselves had taken a page out of “The Monkees” playbook.

Pearlman hooked up with Johnny and Donna Wright, who had previously worked with “New Kids.” They set up a highly-publicized search for members of a new boy band, and signed five previously-unknown young men. The Backstreet Boys were then rigorously trained and groomed, and their record releases were heavily publicized.

Although Lou Pearlman’s air charter companies were pure fiction, his boy bands turned out to be solid gold. The Backstreet Boys became the best-selling boy band of all time; they sold some 130 million records in 45 different countries.

NSYNC followed exactly the same formula. Chris Kirkpatrick had unsuccessfully tried out for the Backstreet Boys, and contacted Pearlman with the idea of creating a second boy band. Pearlman agreed, provided that Kirkpatrick could come up with viable candidates.

Eventually Kirkpatrick enlisted Joey Fatone, former Mickey Mouse Club alum Justin Timberlake, Lance Bass and J.C. Chasez. The name of the band supposedly came from a remark by Timberlake’s mother that the boys were really “in sync.”

Another story was that the group’s name consisted of the last letter in the first name of each member.  That worked for an earlier lineup that included Jason Galasso. Once Galasso was replaced by Lance Bass, they created a nickname “Lansten” so the acronym would still make sense, e.g. justiN, chriS, joeY, lansteN and jC.

Below are the members of NSYNC at the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. From L: Justin Timberlake; Joey Fatone; Lance Bass; Chris Kirkpatrick; J.C. Chasez.

NSYNC subsequently became major pop stars. Every artificially-created boy band is a “synthetic” product, designed to capitalize on an authentic phenomenon. So for example, The Monkees were constructed to resemble The Beatles.

The template for the later boy bands was probably the Jackson 5. The singing and dancing are strongly reminiscent of the Jacksons. However, while the Jacksons played their own instruments, boy bands such as New Kids, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC were strictly singers and dancers.

NSYNC’s second album, No Strings Attached, released in 2000, became the best-selling album of the first decade of the 21st century. It sent the group to the top of the charts, and propelled them to big stadium tours.

Here are NSYNC in a live Bee Gees tribute.

This is a very enjoyable a capella contribution from the boys. It took place at the 45th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony. NSYNC riff through a series of Bee Gees favorites, including Good Morning Mr. Sunshine; Lonely Days, Lonely Nights; How Can You Mend a Broken Heart; How Deep Is Your Love; and finish off with Stayin’ Alive.

Listening to NSYNC gives a new appreciation for the sophisticated melodic schemes of Bee Gees songs. This tribute by NSYNC is quite impressive.

With his boy bands, Lou Pearlman struck it rich in the music business. Unfortunately, the con man in Pearlman also surfaced in these venues. Nearly every group that Pearlman created ended up suing him for ripping them off.

In 1998, the same year that they scored their first big hit, NSYNC filed a lawsuit against Pearlman and his record company. They claimed that instead of taking 16% of the NSYNC income, Pearlman had defrauded the group out of half their earnings.

Pearlman counter-sued for $150 million, plus he asked for the group to forfeit the  rights to the NSYNC name. The suits were settled out of court, but NSYNC subsequently switched record labels.

NSYNC issued a third album in 2001. Once again, it enjoyed tremendous record sales, and the group went on two high-grossing tours promoting that album.

However, following their 2002 Celebrity Tour, the group announced they were going on hiatus. A subsequent album was cancelled, and the group has now dissolved.

Of the band members, Justin Timberlake has gone on to a highly successful solo career, and has also turned out to be a fine actor. He has appeared in such films as Bad Teacher, The Social Network, Friends With Benefits and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Since they disbanded in 2002, NSYNC have issued a couple of “greatest hits” compilations, and they re-united for a single performance at the 2013 MTV Video Awards.

For a band formed by Lou Pearlman, it is no surprise that NSYNC participated in a raft of marketing gigs,
including board games, microphones, lip balm, marionettes, books, key chains, bedding, clothing, video games, and various other articles.
The boys also had marketing agreements with McDonalds (commercials with the group and Britney Spears) and Chili’s (commercials for the restaurant chain, plus Chili’s sponsored an NSYNC tour).

I have to admit to a deep prejudice against “boy bands.”  I think this has a lot to do with the fact that they were assembled using a “cookie-cutter” formula, and that they were so aggressively merchandised.

Having said that, one has to be impressed at the immense success of these groups.  New Kids, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC each made a ton of money.  And despite the crass commercialism, each group ended up producing music that was technically impressive and rather appealing.  Not high on my personal list of music favorites, but probably well-received by my grand-kids.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Stayin’ Alive
Wikipedia, Saturday Night Fever
Wikipedia, Bee Gees
Wikipedia, Bruce Springsteen
Wikipedia, NSYNC
Wikipedia, Lou Pearlman

Posted in Disco, Pop Music, Rock and roll | Leave a comment

Mrs. Robinson: Simon and Garfunkel (The Graduate); Bon Jovi; The Lemonheads

Hello there! Welcome to a new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” In this series, we will discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a major motion picture.

Our first song in this series is Mrs. Robinson. This is a terrific folk-rock song written by Paul Simon. It was featured in the 1967 movie The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Dustin Hoffman.

We will start with a brief review of the career of Simon and Garfunkel. We will then review the movie The Graduate, with an emphasis on the importance of music in the film, and in particular the song Mrs. Robinson.  Then we will review two covers of this song, one by Bon Jovi and the second by The Lemonheads.

Simon and Garfunkel, Mrs. Robinson:

We have previously written about Simon and Garfunkel in our blog post on their song Bridge Over Troubled Water. In that post, I mentioned that I saw Paul Simon in fall 1965 when he was performing solo in London.

Below is a photo of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon at a concert in Madrid in 1967, at the start of their European tour.

Simon and Garfunkel’s career was kick-started by the tune The Sound of Silence from their 1964 album, Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. Although the album was initially a flop, that song started to gain traction on the East Coast when a Boston DJ began playing it on his show.

At this point, producer Tom Wilson decided to re-mix the song by adding an instrumental backing. Inspired by the recent musical style introduced by The Byrds, Wilson converted The Sound of Silence into a folk-pop hybrid, and re-released it. The tune then became a blockbuster hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts and establishing a tremendous demand for Simon and Garfunkel songs.

Unfortunately, Tom Wilson neglected to tell Paul Simon that his track was being re-mixed. Simon was horrified to see his “pure” folk song turned into folk-rock. But the re-packaged folk-pop Simon and Garfunkel songs were smash hits.

Their next album, the October 1966 release Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, was another blockbuster. In addition to the song Scarborough Fair/Canticle, the album included such hits as Homeward Bound and The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).

Again, this album combined Simon and Garfunkel’s beautiful harmonies with Simon’s acoustic guitar, plus a number of pop touches here and there – a harpsichord, some memorable keyboards, chimes, and bongos.

Several of the songs on this album had been written by Simon during his period in London. There was some grumbling from folk purists: they didn’t like the pop touches; and wasn’t it a bit much that Simon and Garfunkel assigned themselves songwriting credit for Scarborough Fair, a traditional tune at least a couple of centuries old?

But these were minor quibbles. Simon and Garfunkel were a dynamite duo and for as long as their partnership lasted, their albums went straight to the top of the charts.

We will now take a detour to discuss the movie The Graduate, and the relationship between the movie and the song Mrs. Robinson. We will then return to Simon and Garfunkel.

The Graduate and Mrs. Robinson:

The Graduate was a 1967 film based loosely on the novel of that name by Charles Webb. The movie was directed by Mike Nichols, with a script written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham.

Nichols had originally been a big success when he teamed up with Elaine May to form a comedy duo. The two had released a number of best-selling comedy record albums. Nichols then set his sights on Broadway, and rapidly became one of its most successful stage directors.

In 1966, Nichols turned his attention to directing films. His first movie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starred the husband-and-wife team of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a film version of Edward Albee’s caustic play.  This was a major hit; in fact, every single member of the cast of that movie was nominated for an Academy Award.

The Graduate was Nichols’ second film. Apparently the original idea was that Doris Day would play Mrs. Robinson and Robert Redford would play the male lead, Benjamin Braddock. However, Day refused to do a nude scene, and Mike Nichols was convinced that nobody would find Redford credible as an insecure nerd.

So the choice was made to cast Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin and Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson. This turned out to be an absolutely brilliant pairing. At the time, The Graduate was one of the top-grossing films in movie history. It received seven Academy Award nominations.

Publicity photo from the 1967 film The Graduate.

At left is a publicity photo from The Graduate; it pictures Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) staring at Mrs. Robinson’s (Anne Bancroft) extended leg.

An interesting bit of trivia is that the only Oscar won by The Graduate was Best Director for Mike Nichols. No picture since has won the Oscar only for Best Director, and in no other category.

During the filming of the movie, Mike Nichols was obsessed with Simon and Garfunkel’s music, so he played their song The Sound of Silence while shooting scenes. The idea was that the Simon and Garfunkel song would be replaced in editing by a custom-written film score. However, as filming progressed, Nichols became more convinced that Simon and Garfunkel’s songs would be a perfect fit for his movie.

So Nichols met with Paul Simon and pitched his idea. They contracted for Simon to write three songs specifically for the film. However Simon, who found it difficult to compose songs under a deadline, had written only one song when filming was completed and the movie was being edited.

Simon told Nichols that he had recently written one new song, but it was not for the movie. Nichols convinced Simon to play him a few notes of a song tentatively titled Mrs. Roosevelt. Nichols immediately said, “It will be called Mrs. Robinson, and it’s perfect for my film.”

The narrator in Mrs. Robinson appears to be someone at a retreat or medical center, talking with a potential patient. The lyrics are somewhat ambiguous.

[CHORUS] And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson
Jesus loves you more than you will know
Wo wo wo
God bless you, please, Mrs. Robinson
Heaven holds a place for those who pray
Hey hey hey, hey hey hey.

We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself
Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home

[CHORUS]

Hide it in the hiding place where no one ever goes
Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes
It’s a little secret just the Robinson’s affair
Most of all you’ve got to hide it from the kids

There has been much speculation regarding the lines “Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio … Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.” Although the lyrics appear to be critical of Dimaggio, Simon has argued that
the line was meant as a sincere tribute to DiMaggio’s unpretentious heroic stature … He further reflected: “In these days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence.”

Here is a music video for The Graduate.

This video plays Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson, accompanied by clips from The Graduate.

For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, here is a summary of its plot. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from college and is spending the summer back home in Pasadena while he tries to determine his future.

Braddock is seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a bored housewife and friend of his family. Although he rebuffs her initial offer, Benjamin commences an affair with the much older woman. However, he finds that apart from the sex, they have virtually nothing in common.

Benjamin becomes attracted to Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). His parents urge him to date Elaine, although Mrs. Robinson warns Benjamin to stay away from her. When Benjamin starts dating Elaine, Mrs. Robinson tells both her husband and Elaine that Benjamin raped her.

Elaine subsequently rejects Benjamin, and her family arranges a marriage between her and her Berkeley classmate, Carl.  After searching frantically for Elaine, Benjamin eventually discovers that she is being married that very day in Santa Barbara. He interrupts the ceremony, and Elaine abandons her wedding and runs off with him.

In the movie’s final scene, Elaine and Benjamin board a bus while running away from the enraged wedding party. The two sit together in the back of the bus, with Elaine in her wedding dress, and gaze silently and awkwardly at one another.

At this point in time, it was rare for a movie soundtrack to feature pop music. The movie included five songs written by Paul Simon and performed by Simon and Garfunkel. The tune The Sound of Silence was particularly appropriate, since much of the movie deals with Benjamin’s largely non-verbal attempts to sort out his future.

In retrospect, the Simon and Garfunkel songs were absolutely integral to both the plot and the atmosphere of The Graduate. As an interesting side note, The Graduate contains two different snippets of the song Mrs. Robinson; each is distinctly different from the recorded song, which appeared on the 1968 Simon & Garfunkel album Bookends.

OK, now back to Simon and Garfunkel. Here they are in a live performance of Mrs. Robinson.

Isn’t this terrific? It is from the Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert in New York’s Central Park in 1981. The free open-air concert drew well over 500,000 people.

Apparently, there was significant friction between Simon and Garfunkel during their career. Tensions between the duo were sufficiently high that they agreed on a temporary separation after recording their final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Although they re-united a few times during the 70s, there was still a fair amount of hostility between the pair. But their Sept, 1981 Concert in Central Park was a phenomenal success, clearly demonstrating a great interest in future projects by the duo. As a result, Simon and Garfunkel planned a subsequent tour in 1982.

However, that tour was cancelled, and although the pair recorded several tracks for another album, Paul Simon decided to issue that album as a solo project, the 1983 release Hearts and Bones.

I have seen Simon and Garfunkel performing together a few times on TV since their breakup. My impression is that while Art Garfunkel makes an effort to be civil, Paul Simon goes out of his way to behave like a jerk.

For example, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, Art Garfunkel called Simon
“the person who most enriched my life by putting those songs through me,” to which Simon responded, “Arthur and I agree about almost nothing. But it’s true, I have enriched his life quite a bit.”

In 2000, Paul Simon was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame as a solo artist, and he said
“I regret the ending of our friendship. I hope that some day before we die we will make peace with each other,” then after a pause “No rush.”

What a shame – on their best songs, Simon and Garfunkel shared a magical chemistry. They were a brilliant pop duo. And we cherish the few albums that the two produced.

Bon Jovi, Mrs. Robinson:

Bon Jovi is a tremendously successful rock band that hails from New Jersey. The band was formed in 1983 with lead singer Jon Bongiovi, and was initially called “Jon Bongiovi and the Wild Ones.”

Eventually Jon assembled a quintet. The “big-hair” band is shown in 1986. From L: lead vocalist and guitar Jon Bon Jovi; lead guitarist and fellow songwriter Richie Sambora; keyboardist David Bryan; bassist Alec John Such; percussionist Tico Torres.

Over the period 1984-85, the group adopted the name Bon Jovi and issued a couple of albums. Although record sales were modest, they allowed Bon Jovi to go out on tour where they opened for heavy-metal groups. The band was also invited to perform at a few festivals.

However, Bon Jovi really made a splash with their third album, the 1986 release Slippery When Wet. That album contained two monster single hits, You Give Love a Bad Name and Livin’ On a Prayer.

Slippery When Wet was the top-selling album of 1987 on the Billboard pop charts, and Bon Jovi won an MTV Video Music Award, a People’s Choice Award and an American Music Award.

In the space of a year, Bon Jovi went from an opening act in small venues to headlining at large arenas. The band literally exploded into the public consciousness and became an overnight sensation, and Jon Bon Jovi became a superstar.

Bon Jovi followed up their first big album with an even bigger record; their 1988 release New Jersey contained five Top Ten hits and hit #1 on the charts in most English-speaking countries.

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora performed an acoustic set at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards show. It is generally believed that this was the inspiration for the MTV Unplugged series, and that their appearance sparked the entire “Unplugged” phenomenon.

This is interesting because, as you will see below, Jon and Richie perform a version of Mrs. Robinson that is reminiscent of their “Unplugged” performance. Although the song features electric bass and keyboards, Jon and Richie perform with acoustic guitars.

Here are Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora in a live performance from the UK entertainment show TFI Friday in March 1996.

How delightful! Jon and Richie sing and play acoustic guitars (Sambora’s is a double-neck job), with additional contributions from a bass, bongo drums and keyboards. The net result is highly entertaining.

Sambora’s guitar work and the presence of the bongo drums are reminiscent of the style of the Dave Matthews Band.  This might explain why my copy of the audio of this Bon Jovi cover is incorrectly credited to the Dave Matthews Band.

For several decades now, Bon Jovi has maintained its superstar status. A couple of their tours were certified as the top-grossing tour of the year, and in 2009 Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

The band has sold more than 130 million records worldwide and has performed for over 34 million fans in 50 countries. The band has also been remarkably stable; until 2013 the only personnel change was to replace Alec John Such with Hugh MacDonald in 1994.

On a couple of occasions, Bon Jovi went on hiatus while its members recuperated from grueling non-stop touring. During those periods, both Jon and Richie issued solo albums.

However, in 2013 Richie Sambora left the band, amidst rumors that he had been fired, although both Jon and Richie deny this. Although Richie was replaced on guitar with Phil X, it’s difficult for me to recognize this as the band “Bon Jovi” without such an important member. To me, it’s something like “The Beatles” without Paul McCartney.

Oh well, I wish both Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora all the best in their respective careers.

The Lemonheads, Mrs. Robinson:

The Lemonheads are an alternative-rock band. The band formed in 1986 from a group of students at Boston’s Commonwealth School. Evan Dando and Ben Deily were initially the lead singers and songwriters.

For the next five years, the band played at small venues and issued records on minor labels while trying to score a major-record-label gig. They eventually succeeded with their breakout album It’s A Shame About Ray, a 1992 release from Atlantic Records.

Below is a photo of the guitarist and lead vocalist Evan Dando of The Lemonheads.

The album It’s A Shame About Ray reached #5 on the Modern Rock Tracks charts, and gave the group some national exposure. The exposure increased when that album was re-released to include as a bonus track The Lemonheads’ cover of the Simon and Garfunkel classic Mrs. Robinson.

Here is a live performance of Mrs. Robinson by The Lemonheads.

This took place on the British TV show Top Of the Pops, in 1993. As mentioned by the MC, the Lemonheads recorded Mrs. Robinson as part of the 25th anniversary of Simon and Garfunkel’s big hit.

This is an energetic and pleasing hard-rocking version of that song. The Lemonheads cover has itself been featured in a couple of movies, the 1993 comedy film Wayne’s World 2, and also the 2013 Martin Scorsese drama The Wolf Of Wall Street.

Over the years, The Lemonheads have had a large number of band members. In fact, the only constant in these shifting bands has been guitarist and lead singer Evan Dando.

By the way, the Lemonheads have a connection with my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. The bassist on the Mrs. Robinson record is Juliana Hatfield. She had previously been a member of the band Blake Babies, a Boston-area group that featured Bloomington natives guitarist John Strohm and drummer Freda Love.

In 1996, Strohm joined The Lemonheads as a guitarist, where he remained for four years. Following a fairly successful career with a number of alternative bands, Strohm eventually enrolled in law school. He is currently senior counsel for the firm Loeb & Loeb in their Nashville, TN office, where his field of expertise is Music Industry practice and he represents a number of Nashville musicians.

Back to The Lemonheads. Their last album was a series of covers called Varshons, released in 2009. I have heard rumors of Lemonhead reunion tours; however this spring Evan Dando is doing a solo tour of Europe, Australia and the U.S. This coincides with a re-release of Dando’s 2003 album Baby I’m Bored.

So we shall see if any genuine Lemonheads reunions materialize. Otherwise, we have to say “It’s a shame about Evan.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Mrs. Robinson
Wikipedia, Simon & Garfunkel
Wikipedia, The Graduate
Wikipedia, Mike Nichols
Wikipedia, Bon Jovi
Wikipedia, The Lemonheads

Posted in Folk music, Folk-rock music, Pop Music, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mama Told Me (Not To Come): Randy Newman; Eric Burdon & the Animals; Three Dog Night.

Hello there! This week we will focus on Mama Told Me (Not To Come). This is a witty and funky pop song written by Randy Newman. We will review Newman’s version, and then discuss covers by Eric Burdon & The Animals, and by Three Dog Night.

Randy Newman, Mama Told Me (Not To Come):

Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles in November, 1943. His early years were spent in New Orleans, but at age 11 his family returned to L.A.

One could have predicted Randy’s future career just by looking at his family history. His uncles Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman were all noted composers in Hollywood.

Sure enough, Randy studied music at UCLA, although he dropped out one semester shy of earning his BA degree. Randy began writing songs in an attempt to kick-start a career in the music business.

His biggest early successes were as a songwriter for artists such as Gene Pitney, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and Jackie DeShannon.

Randy Newman’s first big break came in the U.K., and in particular with Alan Price. Price had originally been the keyboardist for the British Invasion blues band The Animals. In 1967, his solo album A Price On His Head included no less than seven of Newman’s songs!

Below is a photo of Randy Newman performing on the BBC in the 70s.

Randy Newman quickly established himself as a unique songwriter. For one thing, he was capable of churning out pop songs very rapidly. Another trademark was Newman’s sly wit. He poked fun at a number of issues, and showed off his sardonic humor in several songs.

In the mid-60s, Randy Newman became a member of the band The Tikis. After Newman left the band, they changed their name to Harpers Bizarre and had one big hit with a cover of the Simon and Garfunkel song The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy). Harpers Bizarre also recorded several of Randy’s songs.

Randy Newman wrote Mama Told Me (Not To Come) in 1966 for British blues singer Eric Burdon. Newman knew Burdon through his close association with Burdon’s keyboardist Alan Price in the group The Animals.

Mama Told Me Not To Come paints a vivid picture of a naïve youth who becomes paranoid while attending a party in the big city. Everything about the party – the noise, stale perfume, a joint? – bothers the narrator.

Want some whiskey with your water
Or sugar with your tea
What are these crazy questions
That they’re asking of me

This is the craziest party
That there ever could be
Don’t turn on the light
‘Cause I don’t want to see

[CHORUS] Mama told me not to come
Mama told me not to come
That ain’t the way to have fun

Open up the window
Let some air into this room
I think I’m almost choking from
The smell of stale perfume

And that cigarette you’re smoking
‘Bout to scare me half to death
Open up the window, sucka
Let me catch my breath

Here is Randy Newman in a live performance of Mama Told Me (Not To Come). This is from a BBC Live in Concert show from 1971.

Newman gives the song his trademark vocal treatment. His voice is a bit harsh and he sounds rather like a country singer. Here, the singer is clearly freaking out, and his only recourse is to repeat the warnings of his “Mama” regarding life in the big city.

Randy Newman wrote this song to poke fun at his own experiences after arriving in L.A. The idea of a social affair gone horribly wrong certainly shines through this song.

Well, Randy Newman carved out a reasonably successful career as a pop singer. But he was much more successful with his songwriting. Artists such as
Bette Midler, Alan Price, Van Dyke Parks, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Cass Elliot, Art Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers, Claudine Longet, Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, Lynn Anderson, Wilson Pickett, [and] Pat Boone
released covers of Randy Newman songs. In 1970 Harry Nilsson issued an entire album of Newman covers, Nilsson Sings Newman.

Newman’s 1983 song I Love L.A. is a witty and somewhat caustic song about Los Angeles. Despite the numerous negative comments about L.A., this has become an incredibly popular tune in that city. It is played at home games for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Lakers, and the NHL hockey team the L.A. Kings.

Relatively early in his career Randy Newman discovered his greatest talent, writing songs for the movies. One big success was his 1972 song You Can Leave Your Hat On, which became the closing song for the 1997 male stripper movie The Full Monty.

Also in 1972, Newman released the song Burn On,
an ode to an infamous incident in which the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River literally caught fire.
That was used as the opening song in the 1989 movie Major League, a comedy  about the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

Randy Newman has become legendary for his movie scores. Here’s a brief pop quiz: how many times has Newman been nominated for an Academy Award for his original film music?

Unless you already know the answer, I predict your guess will be way too low. Newman has received an unbelievable 20 Oscar nominations for Best Original Song and Best Original Music Score! Alas, he has not been that successful; Newman has won only two Oscars, both for Best Original Song, and he set a record by receiving 15 nominations before his first win.

Randy Newman has written the score for seven Disney/Pixar films, and for six of those films he received at least one Academy Award nomination. Both of his Oscar wins came with Pixar films, for Monsters, Inc and Toy Story 3.

Over the years, Randy Newman has been widely recognized for his musical genius. In 2002 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2007 he was named a Disney Legend. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

Nice going, Randy, keep up the good work! And, “you can leave your hat on.”

Eric Burdon & the Animals, Mama Told Me Not To Come:

Eric Burdon is a great British blues vocalist. He was born in 1941 in Newcastle, England to a working-class family. Early on, Burdon developed a love for music, especially the blues.

Eric had a particularly grim view of his childhood education. He had the following to say about his primary-school education:
“Some teachers were sadistic– others pretended not to notice– and sexual molestation and regular corporal punishment with a leather strap was the order of the day”.

Like so many British Invasion musicians, Burdon attended art college. He and his pals listened to as much American blues music as they could get their hands on.  In 1962 Burdon joined a Newcastle band, the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo. Shortly after Burdon joined, the group changed its name to The Animals.

Below is a photo of Eric Burdon and the Animals in the 60s. Eric Burdon is second from right.

The original Animals consisted of Burdon on lead vocals, Price on keyboards, Chas Chandler on bass, Hilton Valentine on guitar and John Steel on drums. The group quickly established a reputation for their fusion of blues with hard rock, and they moved to London once they developed a following.

Over the next few years, The Animals became one of the more successful British Invasion bands. Burdon’s great bluesy vocals made a great combination with Price’s inventive keyboard work and Valentine’s creative guitar solos.

The group notched a number of hits, including their cover of House of The Rising Sun that reached #1 on the Billboard pop charts, and that we discussed in an earlier blog post. They had other hits including We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

Here is the audio of the record Mama Told Me Not To Come. Note that in Randy Newman’s original version, the phrase “Not To Come” is in parentheses; however, that is not the case for this recording.

This song appeared on the 1967 album Eric Is Here, credited to Eric Burdon and the Animals. It is unusual in a number of respects. First off, this song was scheduled to be released as a single in 1966; however, it was withdrawn and then included on this album in 1967.

Another unusual aspect is that, although the performers are listed as Eric Burdon and the Animals, the backing band is actually the Horace Ott Orchestra. This album was released between the time that the original band “The Animals” broke up, and the formation of the new group “Eric Burdon and The Animals.”

As mentioned previously, Randy Newman wrote this song for Eric Burdon. We included Randy Newman’s performance first, because after all Randy wrote the music and lyrics; however, the Eric Burdon song presented here is the first recorded version. Newman’s own version was first released on his 1970 album, 12 Songs.

I like Eric Burdon’s version a lot. As we will see, the smash hit from Three Dog Night closely copies Burdon’s version. The song benefits greatly from some funky keyboards, a throbbing bass guitar, and drums. Furthermore, Eric Burdon is a terrific blues vocalist. One can easily see that Burdon’s hero Ray Charles had a significant effect on Eric’s vocal style.

Unfortunately, the “golden era” of The Animals did not last long. Their first hit was in mid-1964, and one year later Alan Price left the band. He was followed by John Steel one year after that.  There were a number of reasons for the rapid break-up of The Animals. For one thing, the musical rights for their big hit House of The Rising Sun belonged to Alan Price.

Burdon and the other Animals members were under the impression that this song, as well as other Animals tunes, had been a collaborative effort with participation from everyone in the band. They maintained that Price was listed as the ‘songwriter’ merely because his name (Alan) was first alphabetically.

Nevertheless, Price was the sole recipient when the royalty checks began to roll in. This caused a great deal of resentment among his bandmates.  That was coupled with dodgy management of the group, so that the band members received almost no money from their hits.

Following the break-up of the band, membership of The Animals was re-shuffled, but the “New Animals” lasted only until 1969.  From 1969 to 1971, Burdon moved to San Francisco and joined forces with the California funk rock band War. As “Eric Burdon and War,” the group had one big hit with the song Spill The Wine.

From 1967 to 1984, Eric Burdon and the Animals were in a nearly constant state of breaking up, re-forming, and then breaking up again. Following that period, Burdon has continued his career for an additional 35 years.

There were a few years in the 1980s when Burdon lost the rights to “The Animals.” However, he re-gained the rights a few years later. A pivotal issue in the lawsuit between Burdon and John Steel was that Burdon had toured as “Eric Burdon and The Animals.” The judge initially ruled that this implied that Burdon had given up the rights to the title “The Animals.” Ain’t the law weird?

Burdon also re-united briefly with War to stage a concert in 1988, at which time Rhino Records re-released all of the War albums.

The Animals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. However, Eric Burdon did not attend the ceremony, and the band did not perform at the event. In 1996, Chas Chandler died of an aneurysm.

Eric Burdon is still performing today. And his blues vocals are still strong and hearty. Here is Eric Burdon live at the Kitchener Blues Festival in August 2016, in a live performance of Mama Told Me Not To Come.

Isn’t this great? Eric can still belt out the blues, and he is backed here with a funky group of musicians. I really enjoy his version of this song.

Following the band’s acrimonious breakup, several touring groups have used the name “The Animals.” In 2016 Eric Burdon formed a new group, “Eric Burdon and The Animals,” and this was the band seen in the video clip above.

It’s nice to see Eric still on tour, and so refreshing that his pipes are still in terrific form. “Don’t let me be misunderstood,” I hope that Eric Burdon continues on tour for a good long time.

Three Dog Night, Mama Told Me Not To Come:

Three Dog Night were a highly successful pop group in the late 60s and early 70s. The group featured three vocalists Cory Wells, Danny Hutton and Chuck Negron.

Hutton, Wells and Negron initially called themselves Redwood, and made some recordings with Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson. However, in 1967 they re-named themselves Three Dog Night and added a group of backing instrumentalists.

Supposedly, the group’s name was suggested by the girlfriend of one of the singers. She had seen a (probably fictional) account that aboriginal Australians would endure cold nights by digging a hole in the ground and covering themselves with a wild dog. The idea was that a particularly cold evening would be described as a “three dog night.”

Below is a photo of Three Dog Night. From L: Danny Hutton; Chuck Negron; Cory Wells.

In 1969, Three Dog Night released their eponymous first album. One of the singles from that album, One written by Harry Nilsson, reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts. The group was off and running, and then went from one pop success to the next.

Here is Three Dog Night in 1970 with a live performance of Mama Told Me Not To Come.

Cory Wells provides the funky lead vocals on this song, with assistance from Chuck Negron and Danny Hutton. The singers are ably complemented here by Jimmy Greenspoon on Wurlitzer electric piano, Michael Allsup on guitar, Joe Schermie on bass and Floyd Sneed on drums.

The Three Dog Night version of Mama Told Me Not To Come hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts in summer 1970. In fact, it was just one of a string of smash hits by these boys.  During the period 1969 to 1975, Three Dog Night placed 21 songs in the Billboard Top 40 charts, including three (including Black and White and Joy To The World) that made it to #1.

An interesting aspect of this group was that each of their #1 records featured a different lead singer. Danny Hutton sang lead on Black and White, while Chuck Negron was lead vocalist on Joy To The World.

Another interesting aspect of Three Dog Night’s career was that, although the boys wrote a few of their own songs, virtually every one of their major hits was written by an outside songwriter.

I have been told that during the period 1969 – 1975, every single released by Three Dog Night made it into the Top 40. What a record of success! It seemed that the group could not fail.

However, by late 1975 the string of Three Dog Night pop hits ended, and that marked the end of the “golden era” for the band. Danny Hutton was replaced by Jay Gruska, and this began a long string of replacement members and re-shuffling of personnel.

Apparently, drug use was rampant among band members during their heyday. For various periods of time, both Chuck Negron and keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon had to be replaced while they entered drug rehab.

This is all laid out in Chuck Negron’s autobiography, Three Dog Nightmare. This gritty account of show-biz life describes Negron’s serious heroin addiction in graphic detail. Apparently Negron entered some 30 different rehab facilities before a religious conversion enabled him to get straight.

Vocalists Danny Hutton and Cory Wells continued to perform with a replacement third vocalist for many years, until Wells died from multiple myeloma in 2015. However, Three Dog Night is still touring, with vocalists Paul Kingery and David Morgan joining Danny Hutton. That should bring some “joy to the world.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Mama Told Me Not To Come
Wikipedia, Randy Newman
Wikipedia, Eric Burdon
Wikipedia, The Animals
Wikipedia, Three Dog Night

Posted in Classic Rock, Heavy Metal, Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment