Ticket To Ride: The Beatles; Vanilla Fudge; Carpenters.

Hello there! This week we will resume our series Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies, where we review a song that was featured in a film.

This week’s blog entry is Ticket To Ride. This is a great pop song by The Beatles. We will review their original song and discuss its inclusion in the movie Help! We will then discuss covers by Vanilla Fudge and by the Carpenters.

The Beatles, Ticket To Ride and the film Help!

The song Ticket To Ride was one of the tunes written for the Beatles’ second feature film, Help! There is some disagreement about the authorship of the song. While John maintained that he wrote the song more or less single-handedly, Paul’s contention is that the two of them composed the song together: he reckoned the contributions as about 60% John and 40% Paul.

Ticket To Ride continues the Beatles’ move towards progressively more complex and nuanced songs. Both the melody and lyrics are significantly more sophisticated than in the group’s first albums. Also, this was the first song where the Beatles adopted what became their standard practice of laying down the rhythm or backing tracks first, and then overdubbing vocals and lead guitar afterwards.

In addition, the coda of the song (“she ought to think twice, she ought to do right by me”) switches tempo and provides yet another change in style.

Released as a single in April 1965, Ticket To Ride was the Beatles’ seventh consecutive #1 hit in the U.K. and their third straight in the U.S. The Beatles also performed it live in their Shea Stadium concert and at the Hollywood Bowl.

Below is a photo of the Beatles in 1962, when they were recording a program for TV GRANADA. From L: Ringo Starr; George Harrison; Paul McCartney; John Lennon.

Now we will shift to the movie Help! and eventually show the clip from that movie featuring the song Ticket To Ride.

Help! was filmed and released in 1965. Like The Beatles’ first picture, A Hard Day’s Night, it was directed by Richard Lester.

However, because of the commercial success of the first Beatles film, Help! had a significantly larger working budget.  It was filmed in color and shot in various locations, including Obertauern in the Austrian Alps and the Bahamas.

The original title for the film was Eight Arms To Hold You. However, after John Lennon wrote the song Help!, the title of the film was changed. Apparently the film was inspired in part by the absurd shenanigans from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

Before he became the Beatles’ producer, George Martin produced records for the cast of the BBC production The Goon Show. Martin had thus worked with both Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers on Goon Show records.  Some of the wackiness in Help! can be traced directly to influences from The Goon Show.

The plot of Help! is so silly that there is little point in recounting many details. However, I will try to give a brief summary. The premise is that an Eastern cult is about to sacrifice a young woman to the goddess Kali.

However, at the last moment the sacrifice has to be postponed as the intended victim is not wearing a required sacrificial ring. As it happens, a fan had mailed the ring to Ringo Starr. So various clan members set off to extract the ring from Ringo, by any means necessary.

Through a series of farcical events, members of the cult fail to recover the ring.  Also, Ringo is unable to remove the ring, which is stuck on his finger. The Beatles recruit a scientist and his assistant to expand the molecules in the ring so it will fall off. The scientists fail, but they too join the chase to steal Ringo’s magical ring.

The pursuit of the Beatles takes place across various countries. At some point, the Beatles end up in the Austrian Alps, where they are being pursued by both the Eastern cult and the mad scientists.

The song Ticket To Ride plays as The Beatles attempt to ski in the Alps, but frequently fall down. There are some whimsical scenes as the boys horse around on the slopes.

Ticket To Ride begins with a George Harrison solo, played on his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. The tune is also notable for Ringo Starr’s highly creative drum licks. Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon each contribute some rhythm guitar parts.

At some point in the video a grand piano suddenly appears in the snow, and the Fab Four clown around while singing. The music video is wonderfully enjoyable, bringing to mind some of the most effective moments from A Hard Day’s Night. To my mind, the funniest moment in this clip occurs while Ringo plays with a duck’s head that he has carved out of snow.

Shortly before the Beatles began working on Help!, they had discovered marijuana. During filming of the movie, they were apparently smoking weed for breakfast every morning. Thus, they had some difficulty remembering their lines, and would break out in giggles at inopportune moments. In fact, the Beatles later described Help! as being filmed “through a haze of marijuana.”

Although the reception of film critics to Help! was rather harsh, today many people credit the movie with being an inspiration for music videos. The movie contains some great Beatles tunes, including the title song, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, You’re Gonna Lose That Girl, and The Night Before.

As for the particular song Ticket To Ride, it is generally considered a real gem, and in terms of musical creativity represents a significant step forward.

For example, music critic Ian McDonald
describes it as “psychologically deeper than anything the Beatles had recorded before … extraordinary for its time – massive with chiming electric guitars, weighty rhythm, and rumbling floor tom-toms”, and he views the production as a signal of the band’s next major change of musical direction [to songs inspired by Indian music].

In 2014, USA Today chose Ticket To Ride as their candidate for the best Beatles song ever. I would not go that far, but hey, one has so many Beatles gems to choose from!

Filmmaker Bob Rafelson had been trying for a couple of years to pitch a TV show about a rock quartet modeled after The Beatles, but found little interest in his concept. The unexpected commercial success of A Hard Day’s Night gave Rafelson more ammunition for his idea.

In 1965 his TV show The Monkees finally got the green light. In early Monkees episodes, the zany plots of the show and the tongue-in-cheek music videos were closely modeled after the Beatles movies.

After the movie Help!, the Beatles would take a radically inventive turn. They would first incorporate Indian-inspired music into their songs, following a trip to India to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Then they would stop touring and produce only studio work.

Following their incredible, mind-blowing albums Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album and Abbey Road, the Beatles would break up and break our hearts in the process.

But the magical music that they produced still lives on and continues to amaze us. Plus, the individual Beatles continued to produce some exceptional music even after their breakup. Thanks for the ride, boys.

Vanilla Fudge and Ticket To Ride:

Vanilla Fudge was one of the early heavy-metal groups. Their reputation seems to be fading into obscurity now, as they lasted for only a few years before disbanding.

In 1965, organist Mark Stein and bassist Tim Bogert formed a band called The Electric Pigeons. They were inspired by the group The Rascals, who had crafted a distinctive sound in which the organ played a prominent role.

Stein and Bogert soon added guitarist Vince Martell and drummer Carmine Appice. The group were signed to a record contract by Atlantic Records and their legendary founder, Ahmet Ertegun.

Below is a photo of Vanilla Fudge from 1968. From L: Mark Stein; Carmine Appice; Vince Martell; Tim Bogert.

However, there was a hitch: Ertegun hated the name The Pigeons (the group had dropped “Electric” from their name), and insisted that they change it. After some discussion, the group settled on “Vanilla Fudge.” The name referred to their status as white soul musicians.

As an interesting side note, the Vanilla Fudge manager was Phillip Basile, who was reputed to be a member of the New York Mafia Lucchese family.

Vanilla Fudge had one big hit, their song You Keep Me Hangin’ On. This was a slow heavy-metal cover of the tune popularized by The Supremes. That song made the top 10 in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

Although Vanilla Fudge had no more chart hits, and they broke up in 1970, nevertheless they had an impact on rock music. The sound of the British heavy-metal band Deep Purple was strongly reminiscent of that from Vanilla Fudge.

Furthermore, when they first toured The U.S. early in 1969, Led Zeppelin opened for Vanilla Fudge at a few concerts. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin has remarked that his band was keenly aware of Vanilla Fudge and its style of music.

So here is Vanilla Fudge in a cover of the Beatles’ Ticket To Ride.

This is from a concert in Akron, Ohio in 2011. The band turns the Beatles tune into a heavy-rocking blues song. As you can see, the organ plays a major role in the group’s  sound.

Vince Martell rocks out on guitar and lead vocals, while he is joined by Mark Stein on organ and Pete Bremy on bass (the original Vanilla Fudge bassist Tim Bogert retired in 2009). Carmine Appice thumps away on the drums. Right at the end of the song, the group indulges in an extended blues riff.

Although they disbanded in 1970, some or all of the members of Vanilla Fudge regrouped on several occasions. They united for a tour after the release of their Greatest Hits album in 1982. They also reunited in 2005, 2008 and 2011.

Vanilla Fudge were big fans of the Beatles, and issued several Beatles covers, including Ticket to Ride and Eleanor Rigby. Although the reputation of Vanilla Fudge has dimmed by now, the final episode of the HBO show The Sopranos featured their cover of You Keep Me Hangin’ On.

So, we wish the members of Vanilla Fudge continued success. They now can frequently be heard in concerts that feature members of other 60s groups such as The Doors, Steppenwolf and The Yardbirds.

Carpenters and Ticket To Ride:

We previously discussed the Carpenters for their covers of the pop tune Please Mr. Postman and also Reason To Believe. Here we will briefly review the history of this group.

Siblings Richard and Karen Carpenter became soft-pop superstars by combining Richard’s sophisticated orchestral arrangements with Karen’s wonderful throaty contralto vocals.

Below is a photo of Richard and Karen Carpenter from a 1976 concert in London.

Between 1969 and 1980, the pair produced an astonishing number of top-40 easy-listening hits. Like his contemporary Burt Bacharach, Richard Carpenter fashioned a ‘signature sound’ by blending classically-inspired combinations of strings, woodwinds and brass.

Richard himself played keyboards on Carpenters’ songs and particularly favored the Wurlitzer electric piano, though he would also switch to grand piano, Hammond organ or harpsichord for various songs.

The duo also produced vocal tracks by overdubbing Karen’s and Richard’s voices to produce background vocals to complement Karen’s singing. Karen’s voice was distinctive and unforgettable – what she lacked in power she made up for with a three-octave vocal range, perfect pitch and a beautiful lower register that was highlighted by Richard’s arrangements.

Karen first appeared as the drummer in a jazz trio with Richard. She then began to be featured as a vocalist as well, but initially considered herself as “a drummer who sang.” Karen gradually gave up drumming when her vocals became the pivotal highlight of the group’s songs.

Here are the Carpenters in a live performance of Ticket to Ride. This is from a 1972 concert in Australia.

Isn’t this beautiful? This performance is somewhat rare in that Karen is still playing the drums. I think this may be the first song where I really noticed Karen Carpenter’s terrific low voice, which is just perfect for this tune.

Also, note Richard Carpenter’s innovative arrangement. He starts out with an electric piano solo that shows a classical influence. Then Karen Carpenter begins with her vocals, while Richard chimes in on the chorus.

Richard slows down the pace of the tune and converts it to a languid, mournful dirge. The first half of the song is basically just Karen and Richard, but they are joined by a full orchestra and chorus at the end. The combination of the arrangement and Karen Carpenter’s vocals is beautifully creative and hard to resist.

While they were a hot item, the Carpenters spent an enormous amount of time on the road, often performing up to 200 shows per year from 1971 to 1975. The grueling travel schedule eventually caught up to them. In January 1979, Richard checked into a rehab facility for treatment for addiction to Quaaludes.

However, it was Karen’s eating problems that proved disastrous for her. She suffered from anorexia nervosa, a terrible body image disorder where a person believes that they are overweight, regardless of how much weight they lose. In the most severe cases, patients could starve to death while still maintaining that they needed to lose more weight.

This situation was particularly difficult for Karen Carpenter, because at that time the affliction and its symptoms and treatment were not widely understood. In Karen’s case the disorder was also associated with obsessive purging to lose weight.

Her problem first surfaced when she collapsed during a performance in 1975. A couple of years later Karen began working with a psychotherapist, and she entered a treatment facility in fall 1982. Two months later she left the facility claiming that she was cured, despite pleas from her family and friends to remain in treatment.

In February 1983, Karen Carpenter died from heart failure that occurred as a side effect of anorexia nervosa. It brought a tragic end to a most promising career.

However, the publicity from Karen Carpenter’s situation helped to bring about a heightened public awareness of eating disorders. Within a short period of time, a number of entertainers and celebrities publicly disclosed their own struggles with eating disorders, including Princess Diana.

Karen Carpenter’s untimely death was a grim reminder of the power of anorexia and similar eating disorders. But the Carpenters left behind a legacy of beautiful, haunting music.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Ticket To Ride
Wikipedia, Help! (film)
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, Vanilla Fudge
Wikipedia, The Carpenters

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

Red Red Wine: Neil Diamond; Jimmy James & the Vagabonds; UB40.

Hello there! This week’s blog entry is Red Red Wine. This is an interesting pop song composed by Neil Diamond. We will review the original song by Neil Diamond; we will then discuss covers by Jimmy James & the Vagabonds, and by UB40.

Neil Diamond and Red Red Wine:

Neil Diamond is a pop singer-songwriter superstar. His records have sold over 135 million copies over a 50-year career, and he has won a series of major awards for his accomplishments.

Neil Diamond was born in Brooklyn in 1941, the son of Polish and Russian immigrants. He attended Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, where he was a member of the school’s Chorus and Choral Club along with classmate Barbra Streisand.

While he was in high school, Neil attended a summer camp in the Catskills where he experienced a concert by legendary folksinger Pete Seeger. This inspired Diamond to buy a guitar and become a songwriter.

Neil enrolled in New York University on a fencing scholarship. He was a very talented fencer, and his team won the NCAA men’s national championship in 1960.

However, Diamond began cutting pre-med classes to hang out at the Brill Building, where he attempted to sell his pop songs. In his senior year at NYU, he was offered a 16-week job at $50/week to write songs for Sunbeam Music Publishing. Neil took the job and dropped out of college.

Apparently Diamond’s early years were fairly rough; he reports that at one time, his food budget was 35 cents per day! However, despite the fact that he was quite literally a “starving artist,” he managed to write a number of songs during that period.

Diamond’s first big splash in the music business was as a songwriter. In late 1965 he wrote a hit song that Jay and the Americans released, followed by “I’m a Believer” and several other hits for The Monkees.

On the basis of his songwriting success, Neil Diamond signed a record contract with Bert Berns’ Bang Records in 1966. There, he hit paydirt as a singer with tunes such as Solitary Man, Cherry, Cherry and Kentucky Woman.

Below is a photo of Neil Diamond performing in 1970.

Eventually, Diamond and Berns clashed over his musical direction. Diamond wanted to write deeper, more introspective songs while Berns was interested in catchy pop tunes. When Diamond attempted to leave Bang Records, a series of lawsuits ensued.

The song Red Red Wine was included in Neil Diamond’s second album, the 1967 release Just For You. Shortly after the release of this album, Neil Diamond left Bang Records.

However, producer Bert Berns continued to release singles from the Just For You album even after Neil’s departure. And he also re-recorded Diamond’s songs, adding material not present on the original records.

For example, on the Red Red Wine single, Bang Records added a background choir without Neil’s knowledge or permission. The song was pretty much a flop, reaching only #62 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, over the years it has become a big favorite, especially after the cover of this song by UB40 hit #1 on the Billboard charts in 1983.

The theme of Red Red Wine is quite straightforward. The singer is devastated by thoughts of a lost love. Although he assumed he would recover from this loss, it continues to haunt him, and only copious amounts of “red red wine” can soothe his “blue blue heart.”

Red, red wine, go to my head
Make me forget that I
Still need her so

Red, red wine, it’s up to you
All I can do, I’ve done
But memories won’t go
No, memories won’t go

I’d have sworn that with time
Thoughts of you would leave my head
I was wrong and I find
Just one thing
Makes me forget

Red, red wine, stay close to me
Don’t let me be alone
It’s tearing apart
My blue, blue heart

Here is a live performance by Neil Diamond of Red Red Wine. This was from a concert in Birmingham, England in June 2011.

Neil performs this with a backing group that includes a full chorus. The song lopes along at a stately pace, and the audience sings along at various points.

It took Neil a couple of years and a dip in his career to resolve his situation with Bang Records, but in 1968 he signed a contract with what is now Universal Records.

And then Diamond was off and running. He hit it big with songs like Sweet Caroline, Cracklin’ Rosie and Song Sung Blue. And beginning in 1971, Neil started playing a series of concerts at LA’s Greek Theater.

One of those concerts was released as a live double album called Hot August Night. That album received rave reviews and has become a classic.

After that tour, and a series of live performances on Broadway, Neil took some time off from touring. He wrote the score for the film version of Richard Bach’s novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull. That had a curious history: although the movie was a colossal flop, the soundtrack album was a bit hit – in fact, the album grossed more than the movie!

Neil Diamond went on to become a pop superstar. However, in 1979 he collapsed onstage in San Francisco and endured a 12-hour operation when a tumor was found on his spine. After a significant period of rehab, Diamond then starred in a remake of the Al Jolson movie The Jazz Singer.

Neil identified with the Jewish heritage of the star of that movie, and he wrote several tunes for the soundtrack that became pop hits, notably America. However, Diamond had never acted before, and it showed. Somewhat strangely, for his performance in The Jazz Singer Diamond was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, and at the same time won a Razzie Award for Worst Actor.

Neil Diamond’s tune Sweet Caroline has become an iconic sports anthem. Some time soon, I will do a blog post on this song. Many other sports teams that have adopted this tune; most notably, Sweet Caroline is played during the 8th inning of every Boston Red Sox home game, where the entire stadium joins in singing the song.

2011 was a significant year of honors for Neil Diamond. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and later that same year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors.

So, to Neil Diamond and his legion of fans, we say “Neil, good times never seemed so good [so good, so good, so good]!”

Jimmy James & the Vagabonds and Red Red Wine:

Michael “Jimmy” James is a Jamaican soul music artist. For over 50 years, he has been performing in the U.K. James was the frontman for a band, The Vagabonds, that was originally formed in Jamaica. The Vagabonds had a big-band sound, and included guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and a horn section.

However, as early as 1964 the group relocated to Great Britain, where they released the first “ska” album recorded in the U.K. In 1965, Jimmy James and the Vagabonds were participating in the exciting “British Invasion” scene. They found themselves opening for groups such as The Who and Rod Stewart.

Below is a photo of Jimmy James (at far left) and the Vagabonds, from 1966.

A couple of years later, Jimmy James was appearing on the same bill with young artist Jimi Hendrix. As a bit of trivia, Jimmy James and the Vagabonds were recording at Abbey Road Studios at the same period as the Beatles were producing their great rock masterpieces in that recording studio.

One of Jimmy James’ biggest hits was the song Now Is The Time, which we will hear shortly. That song was the best-charting single in Jimmy James’ career.

We were unable to find a live version of Jimmy James performing Red Red Wine, so here is Mr. James in the audio of that song.

James’ version of this Neil Diamond song is performed in a slow, luxuriant tempo. His backup singers provide a full choral backing.

So here we will show a video of Jimmy James and the Vagabonds in a live concert. They perform a medley of Now Is The Time, together with a cover of the Temptations’ song My Girl.

This concert took place in May 2012. James’ long-time band The Vagabonds backs up Mr. James, and this performance would be right at home in the lounge of a Las Vegas casino.

James applies his powerful voice to both of these songs. Of course, the entire audience sings along with My Girl.

By now, Jimmy James has been performing for well over 50 years. He has appeared on a number of concert tours in the U.K. In 2013, Jimmy James toured with one of his early idols, Ben E. King of The Drifters.

We salute this Jamaican music pioneer, who must have a number of memorable stories of British rock music through the years.

UB40 and Red Red Wine:

UB40 is a reggae-style pop band that was formed in Birmingham, England in 1978. The name was chosen from the name of a form used by the British government for people who signed up for unemployment compensation.

The form was “Unemployment Benefit Form 40,” or UB40 for short. One of the founders of the group was Ali Campbell. After he received compensation for injuries suffered when he was assaulted, Ali applied funds from his compensation package to purchase musical instruments for his bandmates.

Campbell joined forces with keyboardist Mickey Virtue, percussionist Astro and other musicians to form a band. They chose the name “UB40” as all of them were unemployed at the time they joined the group.

Ethnically, UB40 was very diverse, as it contained English, Irish, Scottish, Jamaican and Yemeni musicians. Below is a photo of the reggae band UB40 from 1983. From L: Astro; Norman Hassan; Brian Travers; Ali Campbell; Earl Falconer; Jimmy Brown; Robin Campbell; Mickey Virtue.

Over the next few years, the band polished their musical skills by performing a number of gigs around the U.K. Their first big break occurred when Chrissie Hynde, the lead singer for The Pretenders, invited UB40 to open for her famous U.K. rock band.

The group developed a strong fan base in Britain before they hit the big time in the U.S. with their 1983 album, Labour of Love. That album was a collection of covers, and it hit #1 on the UK album charts and #8 on the American lists.

The big hit single on the Labour of Love album was the UB40 version of Red Red Wine. Interestingly, UB40 styled their version of Red Red Wine after a cover of that song by a singer named Tony Tribe.

Although the songwriter for the Tony Tribe version was listed as “Diamond,” apparently UB40 did not realize that this referred to Neil Diamond. It was not until the song raced up the pop charts that UB40 realized they had covered a Neil Diamond song!

In fall 1983, the UB40 cover of Red Red Wine hit #1 on the UK charts. However, the song stalled at #34 on the US Billboard playlists.

Here are UB40 in a live performance of Red Red Wine.

This took place at the Nelson Mandela Birthday Tribute in June, 1988 at London’s Wembley Stadium. As you can see, the UB40 cover is a slow-rocking reggae version, with a very catchy rhythm. Lead singer Ali Campbell has a lovely vocal style.

The song was a big hit at this concert, and so was re-released in the U.S., in a slightly different edit from the original version. In particular, the last two minutes of the song contain a “toasted” solo from Astro (that begins, “Red red wine you make me feel so fine, you keep me rockin’ all the time …”).

FYI, “toasting” involves a singer who talks or chants, often in a monotone, along with the beat of a reggae rhythm.

The new UB40 version of Red Red Wine was extremely popular, and later in the fall of 1988 it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts.

Neil Diamond has stated that the UB40 version of Red Red Wine is one of the favorite covers of any of his songs. In fact, in several concerts Neil has performed a reggae version of his song that is strongly influenced by the UB40 cover.

Another use of the UB40 Red Red Wine was by professional basketball player Andrew Bogut. In March 2017, Bogut posted the UB40 song on his Twitter page. Bogut was announcing that he had just signed a contract to play with the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA basketball team. The Cavaliers’ team colors are a dark red (“red wine”).

The best-selling UB40 single ever was their cover of Elvis’ (I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You. Again, this was a reggae cover of an iconic pop tune. That song hit #1 on the charts in both Europe and the U.S. It was also featured in the 1993 Sharon Stone film Sliver.

However, in 2008 lead singer Ali Campbell left UB40, and shortly afterwards Mickey Virtue also left the group. Both musicians cited issues with management and disputes over the direction of the band.

UB40 replaced Ali Campbell as lead singer with his brother Duncan Campbell. A couple of years later, Astro also left UB40. This began a decided schism in the group, as Ian Campbell, Mickey Virtue and Astro later teamed up and toured as “UB40,” at the same time as the re-formed UB40 was also touring.

Not only did this lead to confusion amongst their fans, it left each version of UB40 bad-mouthing the other group. The UB40 faction fronted by Duncan Campbell had adopted a country style that was mocked by the “alt-UB40” musicians.

Although the original UB40 lineup has now fractured, it is worth while noting the remarkable achievements of this band. UB40 were a major success in the U.K., and had over 50 singles make the U.K. pop charts. In addition, they were also best-sellers in the U.S. and Europe. All told, the group sold over 70 million records worldwide. And they were nominated four times for the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album.

So to all the present and former UB40 musicians, we say “Keep rockin’, mon!”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Red Red Wine
Wikipedia, Neil Diamond
Wikipedia, Jimmy James (singer)
Wikipedia, UB40

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

America: Simon and Garfunkel; David Bowie; Yes.

Hello there! This week’s blog entry is America. This is a beautiful and moving folk-rock song composed by Paul Simon. We will review the original song by Simon & Garfunkel. We will next discuss covers of the song by David Bowie and by Yes.

Simon & Garfunkel and America:

We previously discussed Simon and Garfunkel for their song Bridge Over Troubled Water, and their song Mrs. Robinson.  Here we will briefly review their career.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were school-mates in Queens, NY.  They began singing while in school, and first appeared as the duo Tom and Jerry.  They had one hit, the 1957 tune Hey Schoolgirl inspired by the Everly Brothers, and then broke up.

Paul Simon then embarked on a solo career, while Art enrolled in college.  However, they got back together in 1963 using their real names, Simon and Garfunkel.  They hoped to cash in on the demand for folk music.

In October 1964, they released their first album, Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. It was a mixture of original Paul Simon tunes, some traditional folk songs, and covers of a few pop tunes. The album was a flop.

Below is a photo of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon performing in Ann Arbor, MI (same state as Saginaw) in 1968.

However, a DJ in Boston began playing Simon and Garfunkel’s tune The Sound of Silence on his show. The song became popular, and stations along the East Coast began to play it.

At this point, producer Tom Wilson decided to re-mix the song. Inspired by the folk-rock sound made popular by The Byrds, Wilson assembled some studio musicians who created an instrumental backing, adding electric guitar and drums.

Wilson turned The Sound of Silence into a folk-pop hybrid, and re-released the song. The good news is that this tune became a blockbuster hit. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts, and established a tremendous demand for Simon and Garfunkel songs.

The bad news was that Tom Wilson had not bothered to tell Paul Simon that Wilson was re-mixing his track. Simon was horrified to see his “pure” folk song turned into a folk-rock tune. However, he could not argue with the commercial success.

As a result, CBS rushed out an album called Sounds of Silence. Several of the songs on the album had previously been issued on an album titled The Paul Simon Songbook, that had also been a commercial disappointment.

This time around, the success of their single The Sound of Silence and the folk-pop re-mixing of their tunes produced a smash hit album. Folk purists were highly critical of Simon and Garfunkel’s commercialism, but by this point the duo were off and running.

In fall 1964 Paul Simon had been performing in London, but he returned to the States to finish off final post-production of the first Simon and Garfunkel album, Wednesday Morning 3 AM.

At that time Paul was living in London with his girlfriend Kathy Chitty. Kathy accompanied him to the U.S. Paul then traveled up to Saginaw, Michigan to perform a concert. He re-joined Kathy in Pittsburgh after the concert, and the couple then embarked on a Greyhound bus trip before Paul showed up in New York to work on his album.

America describes Paul and Kathy’s trip, that began in Saginaw.

Let us be lovers,
We’ll marry our fortunes together.
I’ve got some real estate
Here in my bag.

So we bought a pack of cigarettes,
And Mrs. Wagner’s pies,
And walked off to look for America.

“Kathy”, I said,
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now.

It took me four days
To hitch-hike from Saginaw.
I’ve come to look for America.”

Of course, America is about much more than a trip around the Eastern U.S. Philip Holden gives an impressive description of the song.
‘America’ … is three and a half minutes of sheer brilliance, whose unforced narrative, alternating precise detail with sweeping observation evokes the panorama of restless, paved America and simultaneously illuminates a drama of shared loneliness on a bus trip with cosmic implications.”

I find America an absolutely brilliant song, with a stunningly beautiful arrangement. On the bus, the singer pours out his angst to his girlfriend, even though he knows she is asleep. “Kathy, I’m lost … I’m empty and aching, and I don’t know why.”

The song America was not released until Simon and Garfunkel’s fourth studio album, the 1968 Bookends. In 1972, America was released as a single. I am amazed that the song charted no better than #97 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Here is the audio of the Simon and Garfunkel song America.

What a lovely song! I especially enjoy it because of Larry Knechtel’s haunting work on pipe organ, Hal Blaine’s drumming, and the ethereal tenor saxophone from an uncredited session musician. The song finishes off with a crescendo, with Paul Simon observing “the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America,” while Art Garfunkel interjects his soaring high tenor vocals.

And here are Simon and Garfunkel live, from their Concert in Central Park in Sept. 1981.

This summer concert drew half a million people. By then, Simon and Garfunkel had broken up, but they re-united for this performance. Obviously, there was still a tremendous demand and appreciation for the boys.

The Concert in Central Park was such a phenomenal success that 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 then decided to release the album as a solo project, the 1983 release Hearts and Bones.

Paul Simon has since gone on to an exceptionally successful solo career. Art Garfunkel released a few albums, and he also pursued an acting career. He starred in the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols. For his part in this movie, Garfunkel was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.

The song America enjoyed a surge in popularity in 2000, when a portion of the song was included in the film Almost Famous. We reviewed this movie in an earlier blog post discussing the song Tiny Dancer. And here is the clip from Almost Famous.

In this scene, the lead character William Miller’s older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) is arguing with her mother (Frances McDormand). Anita says, “This song explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess,” and plays America. Anita’s control-freak mother is not amused.

Just before Anita leaves, she whispers to her brother “Look under your bed. It will set you free.”  Anita has left a suitcase full of iconic 60s and 70s albums – the Beach Boys; Rolling Stones; Led Zeppelin; Jimi Hendrix; Joni Mitchell; Bob Dylan.

The music changes his life — young William becomes a music critic for Rolling Stone magazine at age 16, just as writer-director Cameron Crowe did in real life. And the song America, describing a restless urge to hit the road and “look for America,” perfectly encapsulates Anita’s situation.

I have seen Simon and Garfunkel performing together a few times on TV since their breakup. The tension between the two is palpable. Art Garfunkel makes an effort to be civil, while Paul Simon behaves 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.”

I have no idea what went on backstage between the two, but I am not optimistic that they will ever perform together again. What a shame – on their best songs, Simon and Garfunkel shared a magical chemistry. They were a brilliant pop duo, and they both enriched our lives with their music.

Anyway, the music from their collaboration lives on, even though they have gone their separate ways.

David Bowie and America:

We have discussed David Bowie a couple of times previously, for his cover of Dancing In the Street (with Mick Jagger), and for his cover of John Lennon’s Imagine. Here we will briefly review his life and career.

David Bowie was one of the greatest pop singer-songwriters of our time. He was born David Robert Jones in 1947, and he took the stage name David Bowie in order to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ singer Davy Jones.

David Bowie burst on the pop scene in 1969 with his stunningly original single Space Oddity (“ground control to Major Tom”).

In 1972, Bowie re-surfaced as the glam-rock character Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy featured flaming red hair together with flamboyant rainbow-hued gender-bending costumes, such as is shown in the photo below from a 1973 tour.

Portraying his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, Bowie and his band The Spiders From Mars rapidly gained notoriety for their highly theatrical live performances. Apparently Bowie/Ziggy was positively mesmerizing on stage, and he developed a cult following as a result.

However, in 1974 Bowie drastically changed direction. He moved to the U.S., ditched Ziggy, and changed his musical genre to something he called “plastic soul.” In 1976, Bowie trotted out a new persona, the Thin White Duke, named after the title track of his new album, once again signifying a change in musical style.

Bowie’s career contained many abrupt changes. In nearly every case, he emerged as a leader in a new musical direction. Bowie often shuffled band members and producers at the same time. A restless, probing artist, he was constantly pushing the envelope in many different areas.

Here is David Bowie in a live performance of America.

I find this extremely moving. Bowie performed this at the Concert for New York City, just a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Here, he is sitting on the floor while singing, and he accompanies himself on a Suzuki Omnichord.

I find this an exceptional rendition of America. At this terrible moment in our nation’s history, Bowie’s stark, simple and powerful version gives an entirely new meaning to this tune.  At the end of the song Bowie, who was at the time a resident of New York City, gives a shout-out to his local fire department.

There is an interesting back-story to Bowie’s cover of America. The group 1-2-3 released a cover of this song in 1967, even though the Simon and Garfunkel version was not released until 1968.

Paul Simon had first recorded America in London in 1965, although this version was never released. Tapes of Simon’s recording session were passed to 1-2-3 by a studio engineer; the group then recorded covers of both America and The Sound of Silence from those tapes.

1-2-3 performed their cover of America in a 1967 concert, and David Bowie was present at this performance. The keyboard part he plays at the Concert for New York City is reminiscent of the 1-2-3 cover.

David Bowie enjoyed a spectacular career in pop music. In recognition of his creativity and versatility, Bowie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Bowie was also an acclaimed actor. He began training in acting before he embarked on a musical career. He appeared in a number of interesting films, including Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, a 1983 vampire film The Hunger, and Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige. Bowie also played the lead role in The Elephant Man on Broadway for 157 performances.

David Bowie died of liver cancer on Jan. 10, 2016. Just two days earlier, he had released his final album, Blackstar. That album focuses on themes of mortality and death.

David Bowie was apparently a mesmerizing performer. I remain disappointed that I never caught him in live performance. It is not surprising that he was a talented actor, as his live shows were notable for their creative theatrical elements.

David Bowie was a true cultural icon. He pushed way beyond the boundaries of current fashion, and he made a tremendous impact on pop music. His contributions to music, fashion and modern culture will be missed deeply.

Yes and America:

The band Yes are one of the most prominent and long-lasting of the “progressive-rock” bands. They were originally formed in 1968, and today not one but two different versions of Yes are still touring.

I have to admit that I am deeply ambivalent about the “progressive rock” movement. I loved the group Traffic, admired Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues, and was a big fan of Jethro Tull.

On the other hand, I loathed groups such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Iron Butterfly. I am not entirely sure I can justify my preferences, except to say that I considered ELP to be pretentious and overblown. And I was unimpressed by Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which I considered a 20-minute snooze-a-thon.

In my opinion, Yes were closer to Emerson, Lake and Palmer than to favorite bands such as Traffic or Jethro Tull. Anyway, the group combined rock ‘n roll with psychedelic rock, jazz fusion and even some elements of classical music.

Logo for the band Yes, shaded to look like a butterfly.

At left we show the “puffy logo” for Yes. In this case, the letters have been enhanced with the color pattern of a butterfly.

Like Iron Butterfly, Yes also had a tendency to produce extremely long songs: the title cut for their 1972 album Close To The Edge clocked in at 19 minutes, or one entire side of the album.

Yes had two major hits. In 1972, the band gained fame with the song Roundabout, which made it to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

Below is a photo of the band Yes in a recording session for their 1971 album Fragile, which contained the single Roundabout. From L: drummer Bill Bruford; bassist Chris Squire; guitarist Steve Howe; lead vocalist Jon Anderson; keyboards Rick Wakeman.

Then in 1984, Yes scored a #1 hit with Owner of a Lonely Heart. At this time, Anderson and Squire teamed up with Trevor Rabin on guitar, Tony Kaye on keyboards and Alan White on drums. This group is sometimes referred to as “Yes-West,” since the group relocated from London to L.A.

Here is the band Yes performing their version of America. This took place at a concert at Lewiston, NY in 2012.

Just like the David Bowie version, the rendition of America by Yes owes much to the cover by the group 1-2-3. The Yes version is over 11 minutes long, and contains several sustained jazz-inspired guitar solos by Steve Howe.

The lead singer here is Jon Davison. At various intervals between guitar solos, he interjects the lyrics from America. This is an impressive rock-jazz fusion piece.

Since the mid-80s, Yes has experienced a considerable amount of turmoil in its membership. Musicians have been added, others have dropped out, and the band has re-formed several times, occasionally by adding people who had departed earlier. One almost needs a scorecard to keep up with the changes.

In 1991 Yes put out an album called Union. At this time, the band consisted of eight members. However, it was eventually revealed that at no time had all eight musicians ever recorded together in the studio. The album was stitched together from tracks contributed by a few members at a time.

Over the years, Yes developed a large and loyal group of supporters. Their fans pushed hard to get their favorite band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Eventually Yes made it, but only after a sustained campaign by their supporters.

A group called Voices For Yes lobbied on the band’s behalf. Prominent leaders in this group were John Brabender, a top aide for conservative senator Rick Santorum, and Tad Devine, who was active in the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Al Gore.

This might be the only time those two politicians have worked together on any issue! This just proves that “rock ‘n roll makes strange bedfellows.”

In April 2017, Yes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall recognized eight current and former members of the band: Jon Anderson, Chris Squire (who passed away from leukemia in 2015), Bill Bruford, Tony Kaye, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Alan White, and Trevor Rabin.

At present, two different splinter groups are touring under the “Yes” name. One group includes Jon Davison, Steve Howe and Alan White, while a second group calls themselves “Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Travor Rabin and Rick Wakeman.” Significant confusion ensues at venues when the two tours nearly coincide.

Yes has had a long and eventful career as a progressive rock band. They were central players in efforts to incorporate elements of jazz and classical music into rock ‘n roll. The band had a couple of pop hits and developed a cult following.

I will end this post with a cheesy joke. Perhaps the greatest stand-up comedy routine of all time is the Abbott and Costello classic “Who’s on first?” This involves the confusion surrounding a baseball team with ‘Who’ playing first base, ‘What’ playing second base and ‘I Don’t Know’ at third base.

In the 70s, a comedy takeoff on this classic involved an all-star rock concert. In order of appearance, the headliners were “Who on first; Yes on second; and Guess Who third.” The routine subsequently writes itself.

That’s all, folks – I’m here all this week!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, America (Simon and Garfunkel song)
Wikipedia, Simon and Garfunkel
Wikipedia, David Bowie
Wikipedia, Yes (band)

Posted in Folk music, Folk-rock music, Pop Music, Progressive Rock, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Take Me Home, Country Roads: John Denver; the Osborne Brothers; Toots & the Maytals

Hello there! This week’s blog entry is Take Me Home, Country Roads. This is a beautiful and moving folk-rock song composed by Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert and John Denver. We will start with a brief review of John Denver’s career.

Choosing additional artists was not easy, as there are over 150 covers of this song.  I was particularly interested in Ray Charles’ bluesy cover, but could not find a live performance.  So we will discuss covers of Take Me Home, Country Roads by the Osborne Brothers and by Toots & the Maytals.

John Denver and Take Me Home, Country Roads:

Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. became one of the great folk singer-songwriters of the 20th century. We have become so accustomed to his beautiful high tenor voice and his iconic folk songs, that few people know of his significant struggle before he gained fame in the music industry.

His father, Henry John Deutschendorf Sr., was an Air Force officer, and apparently a genuine hot-shot pilot. He set various speed records in his B-58 Hustler aircraft, and was inducted into the Air Force Hall of Fame.

But Deutschendorf was shuttled from one assignment to another, and Henry Jr. had difficulty making friends and fitting in as he frequently changed school districts. In addition, Henry Sr. was apparently a stern taskmaster, and had difficulty expressing any affection for his children.

Fortunately, Junior’s maternal grandmother encouraged him to take up music. While in high school in Fort Worth, young Henry stole his dad’s car and drove to California, with the aim of living with friends and starting a career in music. His father found him and hauled him back to Texas.

He enrolled in Texas Tech University, planning to be an architect, but in 1963 at age 20, he dropped out and moved to California. He changed his name to “John Denver” after being told that “Deutschendorf” would not fit on a theater marquee.

Denver sang in folk clubs and tried to score a recording contract. However, he flunked an audition and was told “Kid, give it up, you can’t sing.” However, he persevered and in 1965 he stepped in when lead singer Chad Mitchell quit the Chad Mitchell Trio (the group was then re-named The Mitchell Trio).

In 1969, Denver left to pursue a solo career and released his first album on RCA Records. His producer was Milt Okun, who also produced the major folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. Okun took an unreleased song by Denver, Babe I Hate To Go, and gave it to PP&M.

That song, re-named Leaving on a Jet Plane, was a colossal hit for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1969 – it became their only #1 pop hit. Despite the success of Denver’s composition, RCA decided not to actively promote his album, and they declined to sponsor a tour for him.

So John financed his own tour. He took off across the Midwest, promoting himself. He contacted local high schools, colleges, American Legion posts and coffee-houses, offering to give concerts. Some groups paid him, but in other cases his only revenue was derived from sales of his albums, and money from “tip jars.”

Nevertheless, Denver’s one-man tour managed to boost sales of his album. In addition, many people who caught his act at these intimate performances became lifelong loyal fans.

At this time, John Denver also adopted what would be his trademark “look” – long blond hair, granny glasses, jeans and colorful Western shirts. Here is a photo of John Denver from 1979.

John Denver worked long and hard, often on his own dime, to earn a living as a folk-singer and songwriter. However, in 1971 his career was about to completely turn around with a major album, buttressed by a blockbuster single.

Take Me Home, Country Roads was initially written by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, who were then a husband-and-wife songwriting team. In fall 1970, while they were traveling along small rural roads in Maryland, Danoff drafted a ballad extolling the beauty of the American countryside.

Ironically, Danoff had never even been in West Virginia. He used that state because it fit the tune’s rhythm (according to Danoff, “Massachusetts” would also have worked).

Later that year, Danoff and Nivert were opening for John Denver at the Washington, DC folk club The Cellar Door. After a performance, the three headed back to Danoff’s apartment to jam a bit. Danoff and Nivert played their song to Denver, explaining that they intended to offer it to Johnny Cash.

However, as soon as John Denver heard it, he was entranced – “I flipped,” he said. The three stayed up all night re-writing the song, and moving verses around. The song is filled with nostalgia, listing memorable images of West Virginia.

Almost heaven, West Virginia,
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.
Life is old there, older than the trees,
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.

[CHORUS] Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain mama,
Take me home, country roads.

… I hear her voice, in the morning hour she calls me,
The radio reminds me of my home far away.
Driving down the road I get a feeling
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday.

On Dec. 30, 1970, Denver, Danoff and Nivert performed the song for the first time at an encore following Denver’s set at The Cellar Door.

The song got a terrific reception, and Denver then included it on his next album Poems, Prayers and Promises. The song was released as a single in April 1971. Apparently it started out rather slowly, and RCA Records told John that they intended to suspend promotion.

John Denver insisted to the record executives that the song would take off if RCA would just continue promoting it. Sure enough, it did; Country Roads eventually climbed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts.

And here is John Denver in a live performance of Take Me Home, Country Roads. This is from a 1972 Midnight Special TV show, which Denver hosted.

Isn’t this beautiful? The combination of Denver’s lovely high tenor voice, with the absolutely stunning lyrics and melody, is deeply moving. It’s one of those songs you just love to sing along with.

Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert collaborated with John Denver on several more of his songs. In the mid-70s they formed the Starland Vocal Band, which had one major pop hit, the 1976 Afternoon Delight.

Not surprisingly, Take Me Home, Country Roads rapidly became an iconic song for West Virginians. In 2014, the state officially adopted it as as one of its official state songs (three other songs share that distinction).

But Take Me Home, Country Roads had been a favorite in WVA long before 2014. Since 1972, the song has been played at the end of every home football game at West Virginia University. In fact, many of the fans remain in the stadium and join the football players in singing along.

How could you not be moved by a song that begins “Almost heaven, West Virginia”? It’s a bit ironic that some of the sights listed in the song are not really WV landmarks. For example, the “Shenandoah River” runs almost entirely through Virginia, with only a tiny portion crossing into West Virginia.

Similarly, the “Blue Ridge Mountain” chain is also almost entirely in Virginia. But no matter – the song is a true classic, and became one of John Denver’s signature tunes.

Mr. Denver shares with Stephen Foster the distinction of having written two different “state songs.” In Denver’s case, Rocky Mountain High was adopted as the Colorado state song (despite a rancorous dissent from one Colorado legislator, who was repelled by the line “friends around the campfire, and everybody’s high”).

Following the success of Poems, Prayers and Promises, John Denver continued on with a stellar career. He eventually recorded over 300 songs, and wrote 200 of those. He was one of the most successful folk singer-songwriters of his time; AllMusic describes him as
one of the most beloved entertainers of his era.

A number of John Denver’s other songs also became classics, such as Sunshine On My Shoulders, Annie’s Song, and Thank God I’m a Country Boy.

For many years John Denver hosted Christmas specials. His Rocky Mountain Christmas program was the highest-rated ABC-TV show at the time, and was watched by over 60 million people.

John Denver was also a passionate environmentalist. His hit song Calypso was dedicated to Jacques Cousteau and his underwater exploration efforts.

After his career took off, Denver moved to Aspen, CO in the 70s. He bought over 900 acres there that he turned into a foundation, Windstar, dedicated to conservation and sustainability efforts. Unfortunately, Windstar has recently closed down and the property sold to an anonymous purchaser. However, we understand that the site contains provisions that prohibit any large-scale development.

In addition, Denver co-founded The Hunger Project. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the President’s Commission on World Hunger, and he donated royalties from some of his concerts to UNICEF.

In the mid-1970s, John Denver reconciled with his father, and Lt. Col Deutschendorf taught his son to fly. This began Denver’s serious interest in flying, with a particular focus on experimental aircraft.

In 1977, John Denver bought an experimental plane, a Long-EZ, that its previous owner had built from a kit. He was flying that plane in October 1997, when it crashed into Monterey Bay, California. Denver was killed in the crash.

There were rumors that Denver’s death might have been a suicide. Denver had been coping with serious depression for some time, and had several drunk-driving arrests; in fact, his flying license had been suspended because of his numerous DUIs.  However, John was not familiar with his plane, having only a one-hour checkout on it before his death.

The Long-EZ had a very serious design defect. The fuel selector, which could shift fuel between the plane’s two fuel tanks, had been installed behind the pilot’s shoulder. And the fuel gauge was located behind the pilot’s seat, so the pilot was unable to see the fuel levels.

In order to switch tanks using the fuel selector, the pilot would have to unfasten his seatbelt and turn completely around. Many believe that Denver lost control of his flight when attempting to switch fuel; when he took off, John had only a small amount of fuel remaining in one tank.

Despite John Denver’s tragic death at the age of 53, he left a legacy of iconic, deeply moving folk songs. He used his fame to advance projects dear to his heart – conservation; sustainability; anti-hunger efforts; and flying.

In 2011, John Denver became the first person inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. Thanks, John, for enriching our lives with your music.

The Osborne Brothers and Take Me Home, Country Roads:

The Osborne Brothers were a famous country combo that originally came out of Kentucky. Bobby Osborne was born in 1931 and his brother Sonny in 1937.

In the early 1950s, Bobby served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, while Sonny joined Bill Monroe’s bluegrass band.  After Bobby returned from Korea, he joined up with Sonny and they eventually ended up at the 50,000-watt WWVA radio station. There they became part of the WWVA Jamboree weekly country music broadcast.

The Osborne Brothers; from L: Bobby Osborne; Sonny Osborne; Paul Brewster.

Here is a photo of the Osborne Brothers from 1972. At left: Bobby Osborne, mandolin; center Sonny Osborne, banjo; right Paul Brewster, guitar.

The Osborne Brothers were regulars on the WWVA Jamboree. They became known for their “inverted stacked harmony.” In this configuration, Bobby sang the lead part highest; next was Sonny singing baritone; and the third singer (in the mid-50s it was Red Allen) as tenor sang the lowest notes.

Despite the fact that the Osborne Brothers specialized in traditional folk music, they were nevertheless a ground-breaking band in several respects. They were one of the first bluegrass bands to incorporate both electronic instruments and percussion.

In 1960, they were the first bluegrass group to perform on a college campus when they appeared at Antioch College. And in 1964, the group was inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry.

Here are the Osborne Brothers in a live performance of Take Me Home, Country Roads.

We get their trademark old-timey country sounds from the Osborne Brothers in a 1972 concert. That is Sonny Osborne on banjo, and Paul Brewster on guitar. One can imagine this song coming straight out of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In 1967, the Osborne Brothers released what would become their signature hit, Rocky Top. This was a song written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and described a fictional country town in the Smoky Mountains.

In 1973, the Osborne Brothers became the first bluegrass band to perform at the White House. And in 1983, Rocky Top was adopted as a Tennessee state song.

Over the years, the Osborne Brothers had dozens of members. Sonny Osborne retired in 2003, while Bobby Osborne continues to perform with his group Rocky Top X-Press.

In 2013 this group, that includes two of Bobby’s sons, performed at a re-dedication of the Gatlinburg (TN) Inn. This was the location where the Bryants wrote the song Rocky Top.

In 1994, the group was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor. To the Osborne Brothers, we send out an affectionate “Yee-Haw” for their decades of performing authentic bluegrass music.

Toots & the Maytals and Country Roads:

We featured Toots and the Maytals in our blog post on the Kinks’ song You Really Got Me. So here is a brief review of the history of that group.

Toots and the Maytals were one of the most famous and enduring reggae groups coming out of Jamaica. They were formed in the early 1960s and featured lead vocalist Frederick “Toots” Hibbert.

In 1966, the Maytals won the first Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Contest, and for a brief period it appeared that they were headed for stardom.  But this took an unscheduled detour when Hibbert was jailed for 18 months for drug possession.

However, once Hibbert was released from prison the group’s fortunes took a positive turn. Working with producer Leslie Kong, Toots and the Maytals recorded some of their most famous songs, including Pressure Drop and Sweet and Dandy. The Maytals were the first band to issue a song with the title “Reggae,” so they were certainly in the vanguard of Jamaican reggae music.

In 1971 they were signed by producer Chris Blackwell to Island Records, the most prestigious record company in Jamaica. Their association with Island Records brought international exposure to Toots and the Maytals. Two songs by the group were included in the movie The Harder They Come, a 1972 Jamaican film that features one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time.

Hibbert’s vocal style has been compared to that of the great R&B performer Otis Redding. I’m not sure I see the precise similarity in style; on the other hand, Toots has the same stature in the reggae community as Otis did in the soul genre.

Toots and the Maytals opened for The Who during that group’s 1975 North American tour. One would have assumed that this would provide the group with tremendous positive exposure. However, the tour apparently did not go well, and the group never achieved anything like the exposure of the archetypal reggae band, Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Below is a photo of Toots Hibbert (back row) with the Maytals, in 1970.

Toots & the Maytals do a reggae version of John Denver’s signature folk tune, Take Me Home, Country Roads. It is called Country Roads, and here is a live performance of that song.

When I first heard of a Maytals song called Country Roads, I thought “No way is this the John Denver song.” I was wrong! It became apparent when I heard Toots Hibbert sing “Almost heaven, West Jamaica.”

Toots and his band play the song in a slow, steady-rocking reggae cadence. Of course, they changed the locale to “West Jamaica,” but otherwise it is pretty much the same tune.

I have to admit, I got a real kick out of this cover. In the middle of the song, the lyrics are sung by the Jamaican backup singers, while Mr. Hibbert, who is obviously enjoying himself, sings a counterpoint to the melody.

Toots and the Maytals broke up in 1982 but then re-formed in the 1990s. Since then, they have continued with a fair amount of commercial success. Until recently, the band had achieved a rather remarkable longevity, and remained an impressive touring band.

Unfortunately, in 2013 Toots Hibbert was struck in the head with a full bottle of vodka while performing onstage. Not only did he suffer a concussion and require several staples to close his head wound, but the injury left Toots with lasting health issues, including headaches, dizziness, and memory loss.

After that event, Hibbert experienced a debilitating fear of crowds and performing, and he was unable to take part in live concerts.  It was over three years before Toots and the Maytals returned to live performance. However, the Maytals have made a few appearances recently, notably at the 2016 Coachella Festival where they were the second reggae group ever to perform at Coachella.

We wish Toots Hibbert all the best. He has had an exceptionally long career; backed by the Maytals, he has had more hits than any other reggae group. Toots Hibbert was named by Rolling Stone magazine in their list of the 100 Greatest Singers, and he is an inspirational figure to an entire generation of reggae artists who followed him. Rock steady, Toots!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Take Me Home, Country Roads
Wikipedia, John Denver
Wikipedia, Osborne Brothers
Wikipedia, Toots and the Maytals

Posted in Bluegrass, Country music, Folk music, Folk-rock music, Pop Music, Reggae | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Walk of Life: Dire Straits; Shooter Jennings; Brad Paisley

Hello there! This week’s blog entry is Walk of Life. This is a lovely, bouncy rock ‘n roll song composed by Mark Knopfler. We will start with a brief review of the career of his group Dire Straits. We will next discuss covers of Walk of Life by Shooter Jennings and Brad Paisley.

Dire Straits and Walk of Life:

We reviewed Mark Knopfler and his band Dire Straits in our blog post on the song Sultans of Swing. So here we will provide a brief history of that band.

I was driving along a highway in 1979, listening to rock music on the radio. Suddenly I heard a new song, one that I did not recognize. The singer sounded vaguely like Bob Dylan; and the electric guitar solos were riveting – like nothing I had heard before.

The song, Sultans of Swing, was creative and catchy. Mixed into the guitar licks were awesome trills and arpeggios, combined with soaring high notes. Although a rock song, the guitar solos also incorporated classical and jazz elements.

I was so entranced that I pulled over to the side of the road to hear all 5:50 of the tune. This was my first introduction to the band Dire Straits, a quartet that emerged from Newcastle, England to become one of the great rock groups of that period.

Below is the lineup of Dire Straits circa 1981. From L: Alan Clark, John Illsley, Mark Knopfler, Terry Williams, and Hal Lindes.

Sultans of Swing placed Dire Straits on the rock ‘n roll map, and they rapidly developed a cult following. Mark Knopfler followed this up with a string of songs that featured his creative and imaginative guitar work.

Cover of the 1985 Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms.

In addition to solos on his Fender Stratocaster, Knopfler also uses a National Guitar to great effect. At left is the image of Knopfler’s beautiful National Guitar that appears on the cover of their Brothers In Arms album.

Following their initial break-out in 1979, Dire Straits continued to be successful until 1998. The group’s biggest album was the 1985 release Brothers in Arms, which by now has sold 30 million records and spawned a string of pop hits, particularly Money for Nothing.

That album won the group two Grammy Awards and is frequently included in “all-time greatest album” lists.  It is the 4th-best selling album ever in the U.K.

One of the songs on Brothers In Arms was Walk of Life. Despite the fact that it had been issued as the “B” side of the single So Far Away, Walk of Life was (re-)released as a single in 1985.

The success of this tune is somewhat surprising, since producer Neil Dorfsman urged the group to drop it from the Brothers In Arms album. However, Dorfsman was out-voted by the band.

Walk Of Life eventually reached #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and #2 on the U.K. lists (making it the highest-charting Dire Straits single ever in the U.K.).

The song describes a rock and roll singer, Johnny, trying his best to gain some fame. Apparently he is currently singing oldies (Be-Bop-A Lula, What’d I Say, I Got A Woman, Mack The Knife, …) and talking blues, while busking in subway tunnels.

Here comes Johnny singing oldies, goldies
Be-Bop-A-Lula, Baby What I Say
Here comes Johnny singing I Got A Woman
Down in the tunnels trying to make it pay

He got the action, he got the motion
Yeah the boy can play
Dedication, devotion
Turning all the night time into the day

He do the song about the sweet loving woman
He do the song about the knife
He do the walk, he do the walk of life

The song is presented in a rockabilly style. First, here is the “officlal music video” of Walk Of Life. It accompanied the single release in 1985.

Even though this is not really a live performance, I include it for two reasons. First, the vocals are much easier to understand in this video. Secondly, for some reason the producers decided to intersperse live video of Dire Straits performing with clips from American sporting events (baseball, basketball and football).

The first 3 minutes of the song present a “blooper reel” of flubs, failures and fumbles. But the final minute includes some amazing successful plays. All of this is backed up by the wonderful peppy “Walk Of Life” cadence.

And here is Mark Knopfler in a live performance of Walk of Life.

This is from a televised BBC appearance, A Night In London, from 1996. This concert consisted of a number of Dire Straits songs, together with tunes from Mark Knopfler’s first solo album, Golden Heart.

At the time of this concert, Dire Straits had disbanded. However, a number of Mark Knopfler’s bandmates from Dire Straits appear here, including John Illsley on bass and Guy Fletcher on keyboards.

I really love the upbeat “hook” of the song. It starts with a bouncy organ solo, and then shoots right into the tune. It’s not easy to extract the lyrics from this video, but the instrumental work is first-rate. The song ends with an impressive pedal steel guitar solo from Paul Franklin. What a great pick-me-up!

Mark Knopfler originally announced that Dire Straits was breaking up in Sept. 1988. However, the band re-formed in 1991, issued one final studio album, embarked on a tour, then disbanded for good in 1995.

Since that time, Mark Knopfler has issued a number of solo albums. He continues to tour occasionally, but has stated that he has no interest in re-forming Dire Straits. Apparently he is much more interested in his newer music than in playing the old favorites. In 2008 Mark turned down a request from his long-time bass player John Illsley to re-form the band.

It’s hard for me to understand why Dire Straits has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Dire Straits’ music was creative, and the group sold over 100 million records. They had a number of significant hits, and their work has proved durable. It irritates me every year when I see markedly inferior groups making it into the Hall. Grrrrr.

Mark Knopfler is a terrific, unique guitarist. I saw him once with Dire Straits (Zurich, 1983) and later on in his solo career. Back in the 80s he was a frequent collaborator with Eric Clapton at various benefit concerts.

Although he has been passed over by the Rock Hall of Fame, Mark Knopfler was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1999.  Long may you run, Mark.

Shooter Jennings and Walk of Life:

Shooter Jennings is a country singer-songwriter. He was born in 1979 and is the son of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. In fact, as a baby Shooter traveled around in a crib in his parents’ tour bus.

At the time, Waylon Jennings was essentially inventing the “outlaw country” genre with his mates Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.

It can’t be easy when your pop is one of the great legends of country music. Shooter was playing drums at age 5, and took up guitar at age 14. On occasion, he would play percussion in his dad’s band.

In 2001, Shooter moved from Nashville to L.A., where he fronted a hard-rock band called Stargunn. The band featured Shooter as lead singer and pianist; at different points in time they were compared to Lynyrd Skynyrd, David Bowie and Guns ‘N Roses (apparently their musical style underwent several changes).

Although Stargunn developed quite a following, they never managed to score a record contract. So in 2003, Shooter disbanded the group and set off on a solo career. Below is a photo of Shooter Jennings in 2007.

Shooter assembled a backing band called The .357s. The group consisted of Leroy Powell on guitar, Bryan Keeling on drums, Ted Kamp on bass and Robby Turner on pedal steel guitar.

Like his father Waylon, Shooter’s music basically straddled the line between country and rock ‘n roll. In 2005 Shooter did sign a record contract with Universal South records. Later that year, Shooter Jennings and the .357s released their first album, Put the “O” Back in Country.

That album contained the single Fourth of July. It peaked at #22 on the Billboard Hot Country songs charts; this has been Shooter’s only song to make the top 40 in that playlist. However, by now Shooter Jennings has released six albums, plus some additional EPs.

Here is Shooter Jennings with the music video for his cover of Walk of Life. The premise is that Shooter and his band have set up in a convenience store. We are regaled with some hi-jinks (distracted and horny cashier, attractive women, shop-lifters, etc) while the boys are playing this song.


This song appeared on Shooter’s third album, the 2007 release The Wolf. It doesn’t take much to convert Walk of Life to a country tune; the original is pretty close to a country song, anyway. This cover is heavy on pedal steel guitar, while Shooter riffs through the vocals.

In 2009 Shooter left Universal Records, and changed the name of his backing band from The .357s to Hierophant (your word of the day: original meaning “a priest in ancient Greece,” nowadays “an expositor or advocate”).

Anyway, with backing from Hierophant Shooter’s musical style took a turn towards the hard-rock genre. Since then he has continued to issue albums and EPs. He is still playing mid-size clubs on the “outlaw country” circuit; he occasionally appears at a club, The Bluebird, in my hometown of Bloomington, IN.

In addition to his solo music career, Shooter Jennings has appeared in various movies. In particular, he played his dad in the 2005 Johnny Cash – June Carter biopic Walk The Line. Since 2005, Shooter has also hosted the satellite radio program “Shooter Jennings’ Electric Rodeo” on Sirius XM Outlaw Country channel.

It’s not easy to carve out a successful musical career. Being the son of a legendary musical figure has its advantages, but at the same time one will constantly be compared with the famous parent.

I like Shooter Jennings and wish him all the best. And I’ll try to catch his act next time he comes through Bloomington.

Brad Paisley and Walk of Life:

Brad Paisley is a country music superstar singer-songwriter. He was born in 1972 in Glen Dale, West Virginia. Brad’s inspirational figure was his grandfather, who gave Brad his first guitar when he was age 8.

At age 10 Brad was already performing at his church. When he was in junior high, Brad performed for a local Rotary Club. One of the members of the audience was a Wheeling, WV disc jockey, who invited Brad to participate on the Jamboree U.S.A. program.

This was a weekly live country radio concert broadcast over the 50,000-watt country-music station WWVA. After Grand Ole Opry, Jamboree was the oldest nationally-broadcast country program. After his first appearance, Brad was named to the weekly lineup, which gave him valuable exposure.

The photo below shows Brad Paisley performing at the 44th annual Country Music Association (CMA) show in Nov. 2010.

Although Brad’s early successes were mainly as a songwriter, pretty soon he began to score his own country hits. In 2001, Paisley received the CMA Horizon Award, and was named “best new male vocalist” by the Academy of Country Music.

That same year, Brad Paisley was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. This was a clear indication that he had reached superstar status. At the time, at 28 years of age Paisley was the youngest person ever inducted into the Opry.

One does not get chosen for the Opry without being a first-rate musician. As we will see, in addition to being an accomplished songwriter and one of the biggest country tour headliners as a performer, Brad Paisley is also an excellent guitarist.

Here is Brad Paisley in a live performance of Walk Of Life. This took place during Paisley’s 2006 Rolling Thunder tour.

As we said earlier, Mark Knopfler’s original version of this song was performed in rockabilly style, so it easily translates to a country song. Here Brad replaces the keyboards in the Dire Straits version with an electric violin.

I have to apologize for the truly crap audio and video here; it was obviously shot on someone’s cell phone, but was the best I could obtain. Paisley shows off some impressive riffs on his signature Fender Telecaster guitar, and there is also an enjoyable bit where Paisley and the fiddle player trade licks.

This song was apparently an encore at Paisley’s concert. At the finish, Brad makes his exit while the rest of the band finishes off the set. To add insult to injury, the video abruptly breaks off right in the middle of a rollicking steel guitar solo by Randle Currie.

Brad Paisley’s career has been basically one long story of success and achievement. Every one of his albums has been certified “Gold” or higher. In addition,
He has scored 32 top 10 singles on the US Billboard Country Airplay chart, 19 of which have reached number 1 … Paisley has sold over 12 million albums and won three Grammy Awards, 14 Academy of Country Music Awards, 14 Country Music Association Awards, and two American Music Awards.

Brad Paisley shows every sign of continuing his remarkable success in country music, and remaining at the top of his game. At one point, he had ten consecutive single records hit #1 on the country music singles charts. Quite an impressive career, Brad.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Walk Of Life
Wikipedia, Dire Straits
Wikipedia, Mark Knopfler
Wikipedia, Shooter Jennings
Wikipedia, Brad Paisley

Posted in Classic Rock, Pop Music, Rock and roll, Rockabilly | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Highway to Hell: AC/DC; Phish; Hayseed Dixie

Hello there! This week’s blog entry is Highway to Hell. This is a heavy-metal tune composed by Angus Young, Michael Young, and Bon Scott. We will start with a brief review of the career of their group AC/DC. We will next discuss covers of Highway to Hell by the groups Phish and Hayseed Dixie.

AC/DC and Highway to Hell:

The band AC/DC was initially formed by the Young brothers. Angus, Malcolm and George Young were all born in Scotland before their family moved to Sydney, Australia in 1963.

George Young became a member of The Easybeats, Australia’s first successful rock band. In 1973, Angus and Malcolm started AC/DC. The name was taken from the electricity notation “alternating current/direct current.”

Logo for the heavy-metal band AC/DC.

Eventually the group chose a logo featuring a Gothic AC and DC. The slash separating them was replaced with a lightning bolt, as shown in the image at left.

The group went through various changes in personnel. However, by the end of 1974 they had added lead vocalist Bon Scott and drummer Phil Rudd; then in late 1977 the group added bassist Cliff Williams.

With their lineup settled, the group began to accumulate a cult following in Australia. Unfortunately, this group would remain together for just over two years before tragedy struck.

Below is a photo of AC/DC from about 1979. From L: Bon Scott; Phil Rudd; Angus Young; Malcolm Young; Cliff Williams.

AC/DC began as a glam-rock band. In their first incarnation, every member adopted a distinctive outfit. Lead guitarist Angus Young dressed up as an Australian schoolboy, a costume suggested by his sister Margaret.

Below left we show Young in his schoolboy kit, complete with felt cap, suit jacket and short pants, white shirt and tie. The other members of the band soon dropped their costumes, except for Angus. He has persisted to this day in the “schoolboy” getup, which has become his trademark.

AC/DC guitarist Angus Young in his trademark schoolboy costume.

In concert, Angus tends to move restlessly across the stage, reeling off blistering guitar riffs while running about like a hyperactive child.

Highway to Hell is one of AC/DC’s signature tunes. It describes a man who lives life to the fullest, on a freewheeling non-stop party.

Living easy, living free
Season ticket on a one-way ride
Asking nothing, leave me be
Taking everything in my stride

Don’t need reason, don’t need rhyme
Ain’t nothing I would rather do
Going down, party time
My friends are gonna be there too

[CHORUS] I’m on the highway to hell
On the highway to hell
Highway to hell
I’m on the highway to hell.

No stop signs, speed limit
Nobody’s gonna slow me down
Like a wheel, gonna spin it
Nobody’s gonna mess me around

Bon Scott, Angus and Malcolm Young wrote the song while they were in the midst of non-stop touring as their rock band tried to hit the big time. The group was constantly moving from one venue to the next.

Highway to Hell was the first cut on the band’s 1979 album of the same name. The song, which begins with an iconic guitar riff from Angus, looked like it might become the monster hit that could send the group straight to the top.

At this time, the group were already big stars in Australia, and had a significant following in the U.K. Helped along by a few enthusiastic DJs, Highway to Hell began to get serious airplay in the U.S.

Tragically, Bon Scott died in London in Feb. 1980. He had been drinking heavily with a friend, and he passed out in the back seat of the car on the ride home. When the unconscious Scott could not be extracted from the auto, they left him overnight to sleep it off. Unfortunately, the next morning Scott could not be revived, and was pronounced dead at a hospital in London.

The members of AC/DC seriously considered disbanding, but then decided to replace Scott. They found Brian Johnson, who had been lead singer with the group Geordie. Johnson’s vocal style was highly reminiscent of Bon Scott, so he fit right in with the band. After Brian Johnson took over as lead vocalist, the group continued with essentially the same lineup for over 30 years.

AC/DC’s next album was Back In Black, which was issued as a tribute to Bon Scott. This became the group’s best-selling album ever, and contained hits such as the title track and You Shook Me All Night Long.

Back in Black made it to #1 on the U.K. albums charts, and climbed to #4 on the Billboard albums chart, where it remained for 2½ years.

So here is AC/DC performing Highway to Hell live. This took place in River Plate Stadium in Argentina in 2011.

This is some gen-u-ine AC/DC. Angus Young begins with a riveting guitar solo. Starting out slowly, he progressively picks up speed, producing some amazing runs and trills, several using only his left hand. This continues for over three minutes.

After that, he powers into the iconic guitar riff that kicks off Highway to Hell. The crowd is already pumped up after Angus’ guitar solo; however, they go totally berserk as the band segues into Highway to Hell.

Brian Johnson’s gravelly voice is perfect for the lyrics, while the bass and drums accentuate the power of the song. Note the band’s “devil’s horns” trademark worn by Angus Young and several concertgoers, and the “horns” hand signs displayed throughout the audience.

Scenes of the crowd are incredibly powerful; they clearly show the visceral appeal of rock music. Quite frankly, I find the crowd scenes a bit frightening; it may not be totally safe to get a mob of people this pumped up.

By this point, Angus Young had removed his shirt, tie, cap and sports coat, leaving him clad only in his shorts. In earlier concerts, even the shorts would occasionally disappear, as Angus developed a reputation for mooning the audience.

In the rock-band parody movie Spinal Tap, a reporter notes that the band’s audience appears to be almost exclusively composed of 16-year-old youths. I was struck by how many in this audience appeared to be young males – would you say about 90%?

Well, AC/DC had quite a run. Much like the band ZZ Top, AC/DC found a groove and never deviated from it. They played the identical brand of hard-driving heavy-metal music throughout their career. As long as you brought your earplugs and a taste for head-banging music, AC/DC would not disappoint.

Along the way, they became rock superstars. They also became the model for a heavy-metal band. Dozens of groups that followed them copied many of the hallmarks of AC/DC.

The group has sold over 200 million records worldwide, and the album Back in Black alone has sold over 50 million. AC/DC were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.

In recent years, the classic lineup of AC/DC has pretty much dissolved. In 2014, Malcolm Young was forced to retire due to the effects of early-onset dementia. In 2015, drummer Phil Rudd pled guilty to drug charges and to threatening to kill a former assistant. In 2016, Brian Johnson retired due to a crippling hearing loss, and later that year bassist Cliff Williams also retired.

But Angus Young continues on with a brand new supporting cast. So, AC/DC, we who are about to rock salute you!

Phish and Highway to Hell:

The band Phish was formed by a group of students at the University of Vermont in 1983. After a couple of early personnel changes, the Phish lineup settled down with guitarist and lead vocalist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman.

Below left is a photo of Phish in 1993. From L: Trey Anastasio; Jon Fishman; Mike Gordon; Page McConnell.

Phish were a jam band that developed a devoted group of followers. Much like the Grateful Dead, with whom they are most frequently compared, Phish became famous less by releasing best-selling records than from their eclectic and creative live sets, together with their legion of devoted fans.

A Phish concert frequently contains long, extended free-form jams, reminiscent of the Grateful Dead or Frank Zappa. The musical styles range from psychedelic rock to reggae and jazz, with some acoustic folk and bluegrass mixed in.

Phish gained fame with some of their more offbeat concerts. At one point they threw a beach ball into the crowd. Every time someone in the audience punched the ball, the band would play a note. On another occasion, after every song each member of the band would switch to play a different instrument.

Phish gained a reputation for devoting a Hallowe’en show to music from another group. And they sometimes let their fans vote to decide which group Phish would cover.

One year they played the entire Beatles’ White Album, while on another year they performed Quadrophenia by The Who.  Following David Bowie’s death they played music from Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.

Much like Grateful Dead concerts, Phish events attract hard-core fans of the band, who gather to share experiences with like-minded devotees.
With fans flocking to venues hours before they open, the concert is the centerpiece of an event that includes a temporary community in the parking lot, complete with “Shakedown Street”: at times a garment district, art district, food court, or pharmacy.

Most rock tours are meticulously scripted, so that every performance is exactly the same. However, Phish takes considerable pains to ensure that no two concerts are identical. As a result, a number of their fans follow the group from one venue to the next on tour.

Fans at a concert by the band Phish.

Above left is a photo of a group of “Phish-heads” at a concert by the band.

By the late 1990’s, Phish were sufficiently well-known that the Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream company created a flavor in honor of their New England neighbors, called “Phish Food.” It consists of chocolate ice cream with marshmallow and caramel swirls and fudge “fish.”

Consistent with Ben & Jerry’s enlightened social conscience, significant amounts of the profits from sales of this flavor are donated to a charitable cause.

Here is Phish performing Highway To Hell in concert.  Note that Trey Anastasio’s guitar has a unique sound. This is because his guitar is hand-made by Burlington, VT luthier Paul Languedoc. Languedoc also crafted electric basses for Mike Gordon, and he subsequently became the band’s sound engineer.

Phish rip through their cover of Highway to Hell, to great appreciation by their audience. This occurred during a concert in Lincoln, NE in 1995, at the height of the band’s popularity.

Both the audio and video are rather amateurish, but presumably this is some of the appeal of the group. Phish would frequently encourage their fans to make home-made videos or recordings of their performances.

At the turn of the century, on Dec. 31, 1999 Phish began a concert on a Native American reservation in Big Cypress, FL. The performance continued for 8 hours, ending at sunrise on Jan. 1, 2000.

Following that performance, and burned out from years of non-stop touring, the members of Phish took a 2-year hiatus. They returned to performing at a concert on New Year’s Eve, 2002, and shortly after that released a new album.

Phish continued to tour for another 2 years until they disbanded in 2004. However, in 2008 the group again resumed performing a few concerts, and appeared in a couple of festivals.

For the past several years, Phish has continued to tour, although at a much reduced pace from the height of their “jam-band” days. They frequently perform concerts on Hallowe’en or New Year’s Eve.

Some of their favorite venues are the Saratoga (NY) Performing Arts Center, Madison Square Garden (where they have appeared 52 times), and Las Vegas.

We hope that Phish continue their “long, strange trip” for many more years.

Hayseed Dixie and Highway to Hell:

Hayseed Dixie is a bluegrass band that features redneck versions of heavy-metal songs. The group hails from Appalachia, near the North Carolina – Tennessee border. They particularly focus on covers of songs from the Australian band AC/DC.

Initially, the group’s name was “AC/Dixie.” However, after a threat of legal action from the management of AC/DC, the group settled on the name Hayseed Dixie (“AC/DC,” “Hayseed Dixie” – get it? If not, try pronouncing “Hayseed Dixie” slowly and deliberately.)

Below is a photo of Hayseed Dixie performing at an HMV store in London, England in 2005.

The group formed in 2001, when they released their first album A Hippy Tribute to AC/DC. The group featured John Wheeler on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Don Wayne Reno on banjo, and Dale Reno on mandolin. I don’t know the name of the original bassist, as the group has gone through a few people on that instrument.

I would have guessed there would be a limited appeal for a band that played country versions of heavy-metal rock, but I would be wrong. Apparently at one time 3 of the top 15 albums in the Bluegrass playlists were by Hayseed Dixie.

I was even more surprised to find that Hayseed Dixie has achieved their greatest success in Europe! The group has appeared in European festivals for both hard rock and folk music.

Hayseed Dixie even founded a festival called Loopallu in the Scottish town of Ullapool (hint: spell “Ullapool” backwards). The group recorded an entire album of songs in Norwegian. They have also issued single records in Finnish, German and Spanish.

I’m impressed — in how many languages can you say “Yee-haw”?

Of course, given the group’s bluegrass association with AC/DC, it is no surprise that the band’s signature tune would be Highway to Hell. Here is Hayseed Dixie in a live performance of that tune.

This performance was at the Altamont Theatre in Asheville, NC in May, 2013. Lead singer John Wheeler tries to establish the group’s Appalachian bona fides by making snide comments about Texas.

The group then swings into the tune Highway to Hell. At first, it is shocking to hear iconic head-banging music being played on acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin.

Amazingly enough, the song appears to fit into a bluegrass format. The group races through the tune in truly energetic fashion. Don Wayne Reno blasts out a banjo solo, while Dale Reno strums away on mandolin.

One thing I remember from my bluegrass days was a penchant for embarrassingly bad puns. Continuing this dubious tradition, Hayseed Dixie released an album in 2015 titled Hair Down to My Grass. Believe it or not, the album spent 3 weeks at #1 on the U.K. Country charts.

A songwriter and comedian named Tim Wilson once wrote a song called Acid Country, that described his upbringing where he listened to both hard-rock and country music.

In that song, Mr. Wilson asserted “You can’t play Hendrix on a banjo.” This band seems to show that Tim Wilson was wrong! So, Hayseed Dixie, I hope you discover a never-ending series of hard-rock tunes that can be transformed into bluegrass.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Highway to Hell (song)
Wikipedia, AC/DC
Wikipedia, Phish
Wikipedia, Hayseed Dixie

Posted in Bluegrass, Classic Rock, Country music, Heavy Metal, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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