Rocket Man: Elton John; Kate Bush; William Shatner

Hello there! Our song this week is Rocket Man, a remarkably successful pop tune written by Bernie Taupin and Elton John. We will review the original performed by Elton John. We will then discuss a cover version by Kate Bush, and we will review a “spoken-word” cover by William Shatner.

Elton John, Rocket Man:

Elton John was born Reginald Dwight in a suburb of London in 1947. In 1967 Dwight adopted the stage name “Elton John” as a composite of Elton Dean, saxophonist in his first band, and blues singer and mentor Long John Baldry.

Both of Dwight’s parents were musically inclined. His father had been a trumpet player in a semi-professional big band. His parents had an eclectic record collection, and Elton remembers becoming hooked on rock ‘n roll after first hearing Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.

Here is a photo of a young Elton John performing in Los Angeles.

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

Bernie Taupin and Elton John, California, 1973. Photograph: Ed Caraeff.

A unique feature of Elton John’s career was his decades-long collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. A photo of the two collaborators is shown at left.

The two were introduced in 1967 when each of them answered an ad for musicians in the British magazine New Musical Express. When Elton arrived for his first meeting, he was handed a sheaf of lyrics by Taupin. He wrote the music for several of these and mailed the packet back to Taupin.

So began a four-decade music-lyrics collaboration which Elton
cheerily describes as “probably the strangest relationship in pop history”: in 46 years, the two have never written a song in the same room, and John never reads Taupin’s lyrics before setting them to music. “I just go into the studio, look at the lyrics for the first time when I put them on the piano, and go. If I haven’t got it within 40 minutes, I give up. It’s never changed, the thrill has never gone, because I don’t know what I’m going to get next. I don’t know what’s going to land in front of me.”

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

The song Rocket Man (the full title is Rocket Man: I Think It’s Going To Be a Long Long Time) is one of the best-known songs in the vast Elton John-Bernie Taupin catalog.
It is widely considered one of the greatest recordings in music history, and by many accounts one of the most beloved songs ever recorded. Rolling Stone lists it as #245 of its 500 greatest songs of all-time.

Rocket Man appeared on Elton John’s 1972 album Honky Chateau. It became a big single hit, reaching #2 on the British pop charts and #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 listings. In the song, an astronaut muses about his life as he is preparing to blast off into space.

She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine A.M.
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then

I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

[CHORUS] And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
‘Til touchdown brings me ’round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh, no, no, no.
I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone

Since the song describes the experiences of an astronaut, many people have compared it to David Bowie’s 1969 Space Oddity. However, Bernie Taupin had a unique vision, where astronauts were no longer considered intrepid heroes, but simply workers in a routine occupation. Thus the line “and all this science I don’t understand, it’s just my job five days a week.”

Here is Elton John performing Rocket Man at Royal Festival Hall in 1972.

I think this is a fabulous performance. Elton is in great form – his voice is strong and clear, his piano playing is impeccable, and one can see why this tune is so unforgettable.

At this point, the single Rocket Man had not been released. This video also features one of the first appearances of the “Elton John Band.” Many of the musicians backing up Elton John have been with him for decades. This includes lead guitarist Davey Johnstone, who joined Elton John for the Honky Chateau album in 1972 and who has worked with him ever since. Johnstone is in charge of musical arrangements for Elton’s backing band.

Also appearing here are bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, who joined the Elton John band in 1970. Murray continued to play with Elton until his death from a stroke in 1992 at age 45. In 1974, percussionist Roy Cooper joined the Elton John band, and has now worked with Elton for over 40 years.

As a side note, the final line of the chorus, “Rocket Man, burning out his fuse up here alone” is one of the most widely misunderstood lyrics in all of rock music. There are dozens of different misinterpretations of that line.

Getting these Rocket Man lyrics wrong is sufficiently common that this was parodied in a 2011 commercial, shown here:

The commercial presents people butchering the lyrics to Rocket Man, including “burning out this useless telephone,” and “burning up the room with cheap cologne.” Finally a couple is shown riding in a Volkswagen Passat, where the car’s premium audio system allows them to hear the lyrics correctly, and to realize that “provolone” is definitely wrong.

Over a nearly 50-year span, Elton John has established one of the greatest, most prolific and enduring careers in rock music. He
has sold more than 300 million records, making him one of the best-selling music artists in the world. He has more than fifty Top 40 hits, including seven consecutive No. 1 US albums, 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 Top 10, four No. 2 and nine No. 1. For 31 consecutive years (1970–2000) he had at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100. His single “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”/”Candle in the Wind 1997” sold over 33 million copies worldwide and is “the best-selling single of all time”. … In 2008, Billboard ranked him the most successful male solo artist on “The Billboard Hot 100 Top All-Time Artists” (third overall).

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

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

During that period, Elton John’s tremendous productivity and over-the-top antics were fueled by a voracious cocaine habit. Elton has also stated that he was dealing with an eating disorder, at the same time that he was sorting out his sexual preferences and indulging in drugs.

In a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone magazine he admitted to being bisexual. He married Renate Blauel in 1984, but following their divorce four years later he came out as gay. In 1993 he began a relationship with Canadian advertising executive David Furnish. They entered into a civil partnership in 2005 and were married in England in 2014, and they are the parents to two sons.

This relationship seems to have brought stability and happiness to Elton. Below is a photo of David Furnish and Elton John with their two sons Elijah and Zachary Furnish-John.

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

Elton has professed great sympathy for people affected with HIV/AIDS, in part because he considers himself incredibly fortunate not to have contracted the disease during a period when he was extremely reckless about unprotected sex.

Elton was a vocal supporter of people like teenager Ryan White, who contracted and eventually died from AIDS and who was the victim of considerable prejudice. His Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS research and HIV/AIDS research and education.

It would take an entire blog post just to list Elton John’s myriad honors and awards. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998. He is currently the Queen’s “go-to guy” for important royal events, including Princess Di’s funeral in 1997 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert in 2012.

Here are a few more of Elton John’s honors and awards:
He has received six Grammy Awards, five Brit Awards … an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Tony Award, a Disney Legend award, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.

At age 70, Elton John continues to perform today. He is one of the most successful pop stars of all time. Rock on, Mr. Rocket Man!

Kate Bush, Rocket Man:

Kate Bush is a British singer-songwriter, producer and actress. She has a fascinating history, in that she is considered one of the greatest female musicians in the United Kingdom, whereas she is relatively unknown in the U.S.

Below is a photo of Kate Bush addressing her fans at the Kate Bush Convention in 1980.

Kate Bush was something of a child prodigy. She was born in 1958, and while she was attending a Catholic school in a London suburb, her parents produced a demo tape containing about 50 of her songs. The tape was circulated to several record companies.

This effort was initially a failure. However, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour was sufficiently impressed by the material that he underwrote professional recordings of several of these songs. The result was that the EMI group put the 16-year-old Ms. Bush on retainer.

In 1978, Ms. Bush released her first album. One of the songs from that album, Wuthering Heights, reached #1 on both the U.K. and Australian pop charts, and established her as an emerging star.

Over the next few years, Kate Bush released a number of albums that followed a pattern. Her records were generally best-sellers in the U.K., and she won a number of prestigious British awards for her work. However, she had very little commercial success in the U.S. and her records failed to make a dent in the American market.

Bush’s work showed much versatility and intellectual depth. For example, some of her songs refer to novels by authors such as Emily Bronte, James Joyce and Henry James.

Here is Kate Bush in a live performance of Rocket Man.

This is a performance from Dec. 1991 on the BBC TV program Wogan, with host Terry Wogan. This song was Kate Bush’s contribution to the Elton John tribute album Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

I greatly enjoy this cover. The tune is performed with a reggae beat, with a contribution from an ocarina. Kate Bush’s voice is often soft and muted, giving the appearance of fragility. In this respect she reminds me of Stevie Nicks.

Kate Bush’s cover of Rocket Man reached #12 on the British pop charts but did not chart in the U.S. In 2007, this song was named “Greatest Cover of All Time” in a poll by the British paper The Observer. I would guess that relatively few Americans have ever heard Ms. Bush, or are familiar with her cover of Rocket Man.

To give you an idea of Kate Bush’s stature in the British music scene, in 2014
she became the first female performer to have eight albums in the Official UK Top 40 Albums Chart simultaneously, putting her at number three for simultaneous UK Top 40 albums (behind Elvis Presley with 12 albums in 1977, and The Beatles in 2009 with 11 albums.

By contrast, Kate Bush has had only one single make the top 40 in the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts. And while Ms. Bush’s “greatest hits” compilation, the 1986 album The Whole Story, reached #1 on the U.K. album listings, it only got to #86 on the U.S. album charts.

One explanation for the fact that Kate Bush is not widely known in America is that she has never toured in the U.S. She made only one appearance on U.S. TV, on Saturday Night Live in 1979.

In fact, Kate Bush has rarely toured at all, even in Britain. She embarked on a tour in 1979, and in 2014 she gave a series of performances at London’s Hammersmith Hall.

Apart from these tours, Ms. Bush has rarely performed live. Various reasons have been offered for her very infrequent live appearances, including
her reputed need to be in total control of the final product, which is incompatible with live stage performance; a rumour of a crippling fear of flying; and the suggestion that the death of [her lighting engineer] Bill Duffield severely affected her.

Despite the dearth of live appearances, Kate Bush has had a long and distinguished career in the U.K. She is the only female artist in Britain to have had albums at the top of the U.K. charts in five successive decades.

At various times, she has collaborated with a number of outstanding musicians, including Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Gabriel and Prince.

Kate Bush has also been involved in several films and video projects. In 1993, she directed and starred in a short film The Line, The Cross and The Curve. This was based on her album The Red Shoes, which itself reprised the classic movie.

In 1990, Ms. Bush starred in a film called Les Dogs that was aired on BBC television. She has also written a number of songs that were incorporated into movie soundtracks.

Ms. Bush was named a Commander in the Order of the British Empire in 2003. So, we salute Ms. Bush by saying “there is nothing like a Dame.”

William Shatner, Rocket Man:

William Shatner is a Canadian actor born to a family whose grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Europe who settled in Montreal. Shatner graduated from McGill University where he became interested in the theatre.

Below is a photo of a young William Shatner.

According to his Wikipedia bio
Trained as a classical Shakespearean actor, Shatner began performing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, beginning in 1954. He played a range of roles at the Stratford Festival in productions that included … Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex , Shakespeare’s Henry V, and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great … [Tyrone] Guthrie had called the young Shatner the Stratford Festival’s most promising actor, and he was seen as a peer to contemporaries like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Shatner was not as successful as the others, however, and during the 1960s he “became a working actor who showed up on time, knew his lines, worked cheap and always answered his phone.”

Shatner’s big break came in 1966 when he was cast as Captain Kirk in the TV series Star Trek. At the time, the show was only modestly successful and it was cancelled by NBC in 1969. However, the show has since become a cult classic. Its attention to the different values that might be espoused by alien civilizations captured the imagination of millions.

Star Trek’s cancellation in 1969 marked a low period in Shatner’s career.
Shatner experienced difficulty in finding work in the early 1970s having been somewhat typecast from his role as Kirk. With very little money and few acting prospects, Shatner lost his home and lived in a truck bed camper in the San Fernando Valley until small roles turned into higher-paying jobs.

Shatner refers to this part of his life as “that period”, a humbling time during which he would take any odd job, including small party appearances, to support his family.

Things were not helped when Shatner’s wife divorced him at about the same time as the cancellation of his TV show. However, Shatner eventually rebounded, and he became a pop culture icon as Star Trek’s popularity soared in syndicated re-runs of the show.

Shatner subsequently reprised his role as Capt. Kirk in six Star Trek motion pictures. He has since landed starring roles and acting awards in the TV series T.J. Hooker, The Practice and Boston Legal.

In 1968, while Shatner’s Capt. Kirk character was still on network television, he released a spoken-word concept album The Transformed Man. Roughly half of the cuts utilized Shatner’s classical training and reproduced Shakespearean dialogue from characters such as Hamlet and Romeo. The classical theatre pieces were juxtaposed with spoken lyrics from popular tunes such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Mr. Tambourine Man.

The Transformed Man appeared to be an entirely serious enterprise, an effort to give a serious reading to pop tunes by intellectual lyricists like John Lennon and Bob Dylan. However, the popular response was scathing. Critics pointed to Shatner’s spoken-word monologues as examples of pompous over-acting.

Instead of writing off this effort as a failed experiment, Shatner doubled down on his “spoken-word” genre. In 1978, he appeared at the Saturn Awards banquet, for the year’s best science fiction movies. After being introduced by Bernie Taupin, Shatner gave a dramatic recital of Taupin’s lyrics to Rocket Man.

Here’s the video clip of Shatner’s performance.

William Shatner’s “spoken-word” version of Rocket Man made an extraordinary impact; I can only describe it as unforgettable. Initially, Shatner appears sitting on a stool, taking drags from a cigarette. An orchestra plays the melody in the background, while Shatner recites the lyrics.

Shatner over-emphasizes the line “I’m gonna be high as a kite by then,” lest anyone miss the drug allusions in that phrase. Later, using “Chroma Key” video technology, we see three different versions of Shatner. They are intended to represent three different facets of the Rocket Man’s personality. So we get the cynical hipster smoking a cigarette; a second Shatner exhibiting concern and bewilderment; and a third “swinger” persona.

One has to admit, this is one of the great moments on live television. It has been relentlessly spoofed, presumably because of Shatner’s over-the-top reading. I believe this is somewhat unfair. Whether or not one is impressed by the piece, Shatner made a serious attempt to capture the essence of the Elton John-Bernie Taupin tune.

But Shatner’s performance seems to invite parody. Among other efforts, it has been lampooned by The Simpsons and by comedian Chris Elliot on Late Night with David Letterman.

Here we will show Seth McFarlane’s take-off on Shatner’s version of Rocket Man. In an episode of the TV show Family Guy, baby Stewie Griffin reprises this song, with the voice provided by McFarlane himself.

This is virtually a word-for-word re-creation of Shatner’s performance, even including three different incarnations of Stewie.

Although William Shatner became famous for his spoken-word pieces, he also became a laughing-stock. Shatner could have taken this as a slap in the face; however, he took the criticism in stride, and showed an endearing capacity to laugh at himself.

William Shatner has profited handsomely from his willingness to take a joke. He poked fun at his Capt. Kirk role in appearances on Saturday Night Live and subsequent spoofs in movies like Airplane II and National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1.

Shatner’s character Denny Crane on The Practice and later reprised on Boston Legal was sufficiently self-referential that it is sometimes hard to separate the TV character from the Shatner send-up. For several years now Shatner has been starring (and parodying himself) as the spokesman for Priceline.com.

William Shatner has shown that you can make a ton of money if you have the ability to laugh at yourself. Our hope for Mr. Shatner is that he “live long and prosper.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Rocket Man (song)
Wikipedia, Elton John
The Guardian, Sept. 15, 2013: “Elton John: The G2 Interview”
Wikipedia, Kate Bush
Wikipedia, William Shatner

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

Imagine: John Lennon; David Bowie; Neil Young

Hello there! Our song this week is Imagine. It is hard for me to ‘imagine’ a more powerful or moving tune. We will review the original by John Lennon. We will then discuss a cover version by David Bowie, and a second cover by Neil Young.

John Lennon, Imagine:

John Lennon first gained fame as the organizer and intellectual leader of the Beatles, the world’s greatest pop group. Below is a photo of John Lennon appearing at a concert in 1964.

From 1963 to 1969, the Beatles produced one epic record after another, and took the world on a breathtaking musical journey. However, for a number of reasons the Beatles disbanded in fall 1969.

One of many reasons for the Beatles’ breakup was John Lennon’s involvement with Yoko Ono. After Lennon met and fell in love with Yoko, the couple spent virtually all of their time together, including at Beatles recording sessions. Here is a photo of John Lennon at a press conference at Heathrow Airport in March 1969, as he returns from his wedding to Yoko Ono.

Lennon claimed that an inspiration for Imagine came from some poems written by Yoko Ono. In particular, her 1964 book Grapefruit contained the lines “Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in.”

Lennon was also inspired by a book of Christian prayer given to him by comedian Dick Gregory. Apparently this caused Lennon to envision a world where positive religious messages could be absorbed, but without the divisive aspects of organized religion.

The song Imagine represents the perfect combination of John Lennon’s songwriting ability with his political activism. It urges the listener to contemplate a world in which the divisions of nationality and religion have given way to a peaceful society, a form of utopian Socialism where we renounce our attachment to material possessions.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today… Aha-ah…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace… You…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

One morning in 1971, Lennon sat down at the Steinway piano in his British estate Tittenhurst Park, and composed the words and music to Imagine.

Lennon and Phil Spector then collaborated on the production. Lennon created a complete album with Imagine as its centerpiece. Phil Spector claims that he and John immediately perceived the impact of this song, and that Spector treated the production of Imagine “like the national anthem.”

The album was produced in May 1971 at Ascot Sound Studios, Lennon’s home studio at Tittenhurst Park, and finished at The Record Plant in New York City.

Here is John Lennon performing Imagine live. This took place at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in 1971, and was apparently Lennon’s first live performance of Imagine.

With Yoko Ono at his side, Lennon makes a few comments before launching into an acoustic version of Imagine. The musicians on stage apparently had not practiced the song, as they spend much of their time watching Lennon to follow the chord changes.

However, the song is so simple and the lyrics are sufficiently powerful that even this stark, stripped-down version is quite moving.

Imagine was not only John Lennon’s biggest-selling record as a solo artist, it has become his signature song and a world-wide expression of utopian aspirations.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter made this comment regarding the universal impact of Imagine:
“in many countries around the world—my wife and I have visited about 125 countries—you hear John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ used almost equally with national anthems.”

Imagine has appeared at several other events that would bolster its claim to being a “world anthem.” Peter Gabriel performed the song at the opening ceremonies for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Imagine was also performed by the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra at the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

In 1996, Stevie Wonder performed Imagine at the closing ceremonies for the Olympic Games, as a tribute to the victims of the Centennial Olympic Park bombings. And Madonna performed the song at the Tsunami Aid benefit concert.

Rolling Stone magazine ranked Imagine #3 on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 2005, listeners of the Canadian Broadcasting Association voted it the greatest song of the past century. And since 2005, Imagine has been played just before the ball drops in New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Here is the music video for Imagine. This features excerpts from an 81-minute film that Lennon and Oko produced to accompany the Imagine album.

In this brief video, John and Yoko walk through dense fog to their estate at Tittenhurst Park. John then sits down at a white grand piano, in an all-white room in near-darkness. While John sings Imagine, Yoko walks around the room, opening windows to progressively illuminate the room.

The production values are both simple and stunningly impressive. The song begins with a few chords on piano, at a slow, stately pace. Lennon begins the  vocals, accompanying himself on piano. At the end of the first verse, Klaus Voorman and Alan White enter on bass and drums, respectively. Eventually we get strings from the group Flux Fiddlers.

I find Imagine one of the most powerful and inspirational songs ever. I am frequently moved to tears by the tune, especially when it is played at a particularly impactful moment. I remember that just after John Lennon was assassinated in December 1980, one New York radio station played Imagine continuously for several hours.

Just one negative note. It is not unusual for a performer to alter the lyrics to a song, either for dramatic effect or to highlight some aspect of the tune. However, when CeeLo Green produced his cover of Imagine in 2011, he changed Lennon’s line “and no religion, too” to “and all religions true.”

Green defended his version by claiming that Lennon’s song represented “a world [where you] could believe what [you] wanted.” However, I am with Green’s critics on this one, since this alteration completely contradicts the meaning of Lennon’s lyrics.

I hope that you find Imagine as powerful and moving as I do. What a beautiful, haunting tune. And given John Lennon’s unspeakable murder in 1980, the song gains even more resonance.

These are difficult, troubled times.  When I am thoroughly depressed from watching the daily news, I can hum to myself “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”  It helps to cheer me up.

David Bowie, Imagine:

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. Well, you would see this if the photo weren’t in black and white; as it is, you will just have to “imagine” the vivid colors.

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 style 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 new musical direction.

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

Shortly we will show a video clip of David Bowie performing Imagine. This occurred during the final show of Bowie’s 1983 tour called “Serious Moonlight.”  As it happened, the final show of that tour took place in Hong Kong on Dec. 8. This was the third anniversary of John Lennon’s death.

David Bowie and his guitarist Earl Slick discussed the possibility that they might play the Beatles’ tune Across The Universe as a tribute to John Lennon. Lennon had written that tune, and Bowie had recorded a cover of it on his 1975 Young Americans album.

However, Bowie reportedly said, “Well, if we’re going to do [something for John], we might as well do Imagine.” So they performed that tune in Hong Kong, as shown here.

The clip begins with a few comments by Bowie about John Lennon. David Bowie then introduces the song by saying “On this day, Dec. 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York apartment.”

Bowie then segues into Imagine. I find it very moving. The song has an interesting background with horns and backup singers, and is highlighted by Bowie’s exceptionally versatile voice.

At the end, Bowie repeats the song’s final phrase, “and the world will live as one,” over and over. At first the phrase gets progressively louder, but then becomes softer and softer until the song, and Bowie’s concert, ends.

This is a loving tribute to David Bowie’s close friend John Lennon. In 1975 Bowie and Lennon were both in New York, and in the recording studio the two had collaborated on writing Bowie’s song Fame, which became the first #1 hit for Bowie.

Just a bit more about David Bowie’s life and career. We had previously mentioned how Bowie would create alternate personas at various points in his career. These characters became deeply ingrained in his behavior, to the extent that it became difficult for him to separate his own personality from that of his alter ego.

This psychological problem was exacerbated by his deep issues with drug addiction, particularly to cocaine. A net result was that Bowie suffered from paranoia and psychosis, before he was able to become sober in the 1980s.

Bowie’s struggle to overcome drug addiction had an impact on his Serious Moonlight tour. This 1983 tour was originally scheduled to take place in medium-sized venues holding up to 10,000 people. However, shortly before the tour, Bowie’s Let’s Dance album became a smash international hit.

As a result, the Serious Moonlight tour was upgraded to a stadium tour, with much larger venues. This turned into the most successful tour of David Bowie’s career. Over the course of 7 months, Bowie gave 96 performances, sold 2.6 million tickets, and sold out every venue.

Bowie had contracted with blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn as his lead guitarist for the tour, as Vaughn had contributed guitar solos to several songs on the Let’s Dance album. However, reportedly Vaughn showed up for rehearsals with
a cocaine habit, a hard-partying wife and an entourage looking for easy access to drugs.

Bowie feared that the presence of Vaughn would likely jeopardize his recent sobriety. Eventually Vaughn was replaced on the tour by guitarist Earl Slick, who had a long association with Bowie.

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 actually 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 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 deeply missed.

Neil Young, Imagine:

Neil Young is a multi-talented singer-songwriter and political activist. Born in 1945, he grew up in Canada but then moved to California in 1966. His first big band was Buffalo Springfield, which he formed with fellow musicians Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. By the way, surely Buffalo Springfield has to be the only band named after a steamroller company!

Below is a photo of Neil Young in concert, circa 1970.

Following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, Young teamed up for a while to form the short-lived supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Neil contributed to some of CSNY’s early songs and concert appearances, but fairly rapidly left that group.

Since that time, Neil Young has carved out an extraordinary career as a solo artist. He is exceptionally prolific, continuing to churn out albums at a rate of about one per year.

Neil Young is also known for his eclectic versatility. Much of his solo work is acoustic, however he also teams up from time to time with the band Crazy Horse to tour and produce hard-rock music.
Musical styles such as alternative rock and grunge also adopted elements from Young. His influence has caused some to dub him the “Godfather of Grunge.”

Young also has a distinctive guitar style. I am not a big fan of his guitar playing, but I have to admit that his guitar work is unique. Young also is adept on keyboards.

Here is Neil Young performing Imagine live.

This took place at the benefit concert America: A Tribute to Heroes. This aired just 10 days after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

America: A Tribute to Heroes was a gigantic telethon to raise funds for the 9/11 victims and their families, particularly the New York firefighters and police officers.

The concert was simultaneously broadcast without commercial interruption over 35 network and cable TV stations. It also was simulcast on the Internet and aired over 8,000 radio stations. In addition, it was distributed to broadcasters in over 120 countries worldwide.

Although Neil Young had never previously sung Imagine, he gives a very moving performance. In a stage filled with candles, Young accompanies himself on piano. A small string orchestra backs him up.

The song is perfectly appropriate for such a tribute concert. It has become not only a world-wide anthem aspiring to a peaceful world, but following John Lennon’s assassination, it has special resonance in times of crisis or after a disaster.

Imagine seems particularly fitting for a concert held in New York City, which had become John Lennon’s adopted home town.

There is one additional reason why Neil Young’s performance of this song was so meaningful at the benefit America: A Tribute to Heroes. Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications issued a “memorandum” to their 1,200 radio stations.

That document contained a list of 165 “lyrically questionable” songs. Although Clear Channel (which has now re-named itself as iHeart Radio) insists that the songs on this list were not actually banned, the memorandum clearly had the effect of a temporary ban of those songs on all Clear Channel stations.

In some cases, the songs do seem questionable in the aftermath of a terrorist attack – for example, “Highway to Hell” or “Shot Down in Flames” by AC/DC. However, the presence of John Lennon’s Imagine on the “banned list” really seems like a stretch. Presumably, the line that landed Imagine on the Clear Channel list was “nothing to kill or die for.”

Or was the idea that any song that envisioned a peaceful world should be taboo, at a time when grieving Americans were planning to invade Afghanistan and Iraq? After all, Cat Stevens’ Peace Train, Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water also appeared on the ‘banned’ list.

Anyway, it was nice to see that there was no backlash to Neil Young’s performing Imagine at a benefit concert for victims of the 9/11 attacks; in fact, Young’s choice was widely praised as being highly appropriate to the occasion.

As a postscript, Paul Simon performed Bridge Over Troubled Water, another “Clear Channel banned song,” at the same America: A Tribute To Heroes concert.

Neil Young’s songs cover a vast range, from political protest anthems to deeply personal topics that deal with relationships and breakups, to anti-drug songs (several referring to colleagues who suffered or died from addiction), to hard-rock anthems.

Neil Young’s song Heart of Gold was a big commercial success, and this provoked a very interesting response:
Young … described “Heart of Gold” as the song that “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”

Neil Young has also made extraordinary contributions as a social activist. I will mention two of these activities. The first is Farm Aid, a series of concerts organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Young to benefit small farmers and to provide them with some financial relief.

The second is the Bridge School, a charitable institution that deals with youth who are afflicted with severe disabilities. Young helped organize the school in 1986 and has sponsored annual benefit concerts for the school.

Neil Young has a very personal connection to the Bridge School. Of his three children, two have cerebral palsy and the third has epilepsy (Young himself suffers from epilepsy). He also was afflicted with polio in 1951, shortly before a cure for the disease was discovered. Young’s annual concerts have raised a great deal of money for the Bridge School, and his public and financial support for the school has been noteworthy.

For his contributions to rock music, Neil Young has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, initially as a solo artist in 1995 for his singing and songwriting, and then as a member of Buffalo Springfield in 1997.

Despite his seminal contributions to rock music, Neil Young can be exceptionally difficult to deal with. However, it is impossible to ignore Neil Young’s brilliance. We have to admire his ability to move from acoustic folk to hard-rock to punk to grunge, and to marvel at a level of productivity that would fill an iPod with Neil Young songs. Long may you run, Neil.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Imagine (John Lennon Song)
Wikipedia, John Lennon
Wikipedia, David Bowie
Wikipedia, Serious Moonlight Tour
Wikipedia, Neil Young
Wikipedia, 2001 Clear Channel memorandum

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

Hotel California: Eagles; Gipsy Kings; SkaDaddyZ

Hello there! Our song this week is Hotel California. This is a rock song by The Eagles that contains one of the all-time great guitar riffs. We will review the original version by the Eagles. We will then discuss cover versions by The Gipsy Kings, and by SkaDaddyZ.

Eagles, Hotel California:

In 1971, Linda Ronstadt assembled a group of musicians for a touring band to promote her Silk Purse album. Among them were drummer Don Henley from Texas, guitarist Glenn Frey from Michigan, guitarist Bernie Leadon from the group Flying Burrito Brothers, and bassist Randy Meisner from Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band.

The group actually performed live on only one occasion, but all four musicians played on Ronstadt’s album Linda Ronstadt. The group then formed a band, Eagles.

Below is a photo of the original Eagles in the early 1970s. From L: Glenn Frey; Bernie Leadon; Don Henley; Randy Meisner.

The band released a self-titled album in June, 1972 and it immediately made a splash, particularly for their first hit single Take It Easy. This became one of the Eagles’ signature songs, and made the group famous for their form of country-rock fusion.

Nearly all songs by the Eagles were co-written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The pair turned out to be a powerhouse song-writing duo. Over the years they churned out hit country-rock tunes characterized by lovely melodies coupled with terrific, memorable lyrics. And the Eagles also became known for their impressive four-part harmony.

Back in the 70s there were many groups in the country-rock scene, but the Eagles stood out for both the quality and quantity of their hits. After their first big hit in 1972, the Eagles became an unstoppable musical juggernaut. They were arguably the greatest country-rock band of the late 20th century.

The Eagles also enjoyed great success as a touring band. Their ability to reproduce the harmonies from their records made them a major draw on tour. In 1974 the group became a quintet, adding guitarist Don Felder to their band.

When Felder arrived, the Eagles added more hard rock songs to their repertoire. However, Bernie Leadon strongly preferred the group’s original country-rock music, and as a result he left the Eagles at the end of 1975. Leadon was replaced by Joe Walsh, who had been the lead guitarist with The James Gang before embarking on a solo career.

Don Felder composed the melody for Hotel California. He then sent it on a demo cassette to Don Henley and Glenn Frey. Both Henley and Frey were intrigued by Felder’s composition, and they came up with various concepts for the song.

The influence of both Latin music and reggae was obvious in Felder’s draft composition. Don Henley apparently referred to it as a “Mexican reggae or Bolero,” and the group’s early working title before adding the lyrics was “Mexican Reggae.”

Apparently Henley and Frey had discussions about this song while driving from the desert into Los Angeles, or vice versa. In particular, Frey had the notion of creating an atmosphere of a mysterious metropolis, where a crass commercialism had overtaken an earlier idealism.

While Frey contributed to the overall atmosphere of Hotel California and collaborated in writing the song, the bulk of the lyrics were provided by Don Henley. “Hotel California” was the band’s name for the Beverly Hills Hilton, where members of the group were spending much of their time at that moment.

The lyrics of Hotel California succeed brilliantly in creating the mood envisioned by Henley and Frey.

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night

There she stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
‘This could be heaven or this could be Hell
Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor
I thought I heard them say

[CHORUS] Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year (any time of year) you can find it here

Several of the lyrics simply burrow themselves into your brain. The phrase “you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave” has actually been used by economists in referring to
the negative effect of financial regulations on investment;
not surprisingly, it is called the “Hotel California effect.”

Another iconic line is “I called up the captain/please bring me my wine/He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.’” While it ostensibly refers to vintages of wine, it also brilliantly references the spirit of idealism and activism that peaked in America in 1969, and subsequently declined.

Hotel California logo that appeared on the Eagles album.

Hotel California logo that appeared on the Eagles album.

Some of the lyrics (in particular, “she got a lot of pretty, pretty boys that she calls friends”) were contributed by Henley following his recent breakup with his girlfriend. The line “stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast” is a jab, so to speak, at the group Steely Dan, who had recently inserted snide comments about the Eagles into one of their songs.

Hotel California was the title song of the Eagles’ 1977 album of the same name.  Above left we show the “Hotel California” logo that appeared on the album. The single hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1977, and over the years has sold over 3 million records. Hotel California won the 1977 Grammy Award for Record of the Year.

So here is a live performance by the Eagles of Hotel California. This took place during the Eagles 2005 Farewell Tour in Melbourne, Australia.

Isn’t this great? My only regret is that Don Felder, who wrote the music for this song, split with the group in 2001. Felder was fired by the group, then sued the Eagles, and the lawsuit was subsequently settled out of court. In 2007, Felder released a tell-all book Heaven and Hell: My Life in The Eagles. That pretty much ensured that Felder was never again going to play with his former bandmates.

Here, Felder is replaced by guitarist Steuart Smith. Smith produces a note-for-note copy of Felder’s classic licks on a double-neck guitar. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to show you an earlier version of Hotel California featuring Don Felder. A 1977 live clip of the Eagles is blocked from YouTube by a claim of copyright protection. Hell’s bells.

The song begins with an extended trumpet solo. Steuart Smith and Joe Walsh start out contributing on guitar. After a brief guitar intro, Don Henley enters with a couple of thumps on drums, and then begins with his lead vocals.

You could always count on the Eagles to give a thoroughly professional performance, and they don’t disappoint here. Their live version is extremely close to the studio cut. Great harmonies from the band, and Henley’s vocals are just perfect for the song.

The song ends with an extended two-minute guitar coda from Smith and Walsh. It is interesting that, while recording this in the studio, Felder and Walsh began improvising. However, the other members of the band insisted that Felder’s original composition was so beautiful that they needed to play it exactly as it was written.

It is no surprise that several polls rate the guitar solos in Hotel California as the best ever in rock music. The more classical part composed by Felder and played here by Smith is brilliantly juxtaposed with Joe Walsh’s more hard-edged rock guitar.

During their tour for the Hotel California album, bassist Randy Meisner left the group and was replaced by Timothy Schmit. Here is a photo of the Eagles after Meisner was replaced by Schmit. From L: Glenn Frey; Don Felder; Don Henley; Joe Walsh; Timothy B. Schmit.

This lineup of the Eagles persisted until 1980, when the group disbanded after particularly nasty and lingering disagreements amongst the members.

The individual Eagles members then embarked on solo efforts or joined other bands, with varying degrees of success. Don Henley had a most impressive solo career, with a number of acclaimed solo hits. Glenn Frey also had a few pop hits on his own.

The group re-formed in 1994, and went out on a reunion tour in 1999. When a band names their reunion tour the “Hell Freezes Over Tour,” you know the dissolution was a contentious one! After their reunion, the Eagles once again became one of the highest-grossing touring acts, in part because of the astronomically high ticket prices they charged for their concerts.

So here are the Eagles with a live acoustic version of Hotel California. This was performed during their 1999 “Hell Freezes Over” tour.

I really enjoy this version. It starts with all five Eagles sitting on stools in a line. Timothy Schmit appears at left with his bass guitar, Don Henley is carrying a pair of maracas, and the other three Eagles have acoustic guitars.

Don Felder starts out with a haunting and melodic flamenco-inspired solo riff on guitar. Then a conga drum begins a slow, measured beat, while Felder continues his Spanish-guitar riff.

Next, the acoustic guitars segue into the iconic guitar intro to Hotel California. The crowd bursts into spontaneous applause when they recognize the song.

We are now treated to an acoustic flamenco-style version of Hotel California. Don Henley again sings the lead vocals, while the other Eagles chime in on the chorus with their trademark close harmonies.

What a treat to see the boys back again, still at the peak of their artistry! Once again, we get extended guitar solos with Felder and Walsh alternating on lead.  The hard-rock electric guitar solos from the original version are here replaced by the Spanish-influenced styling.

Finally, the group finishes up with a flourish, providing an abrupt and satisfying ending. The audience loves it, and so do I.

The Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. In a classy move, both the original lineup and their current lineup performed at their induction ceremony. In terms of record sales, they are the best-selling American band in history. Their Eagles: Greatest Hits album alone has sold over 42 million copies.

When the Eagles started out in the early 70s, there was a distinct difference between their country-rock music and the Nashville-dominated “country and western” sound. However, in the intervening decades, country music has become much more diverse.  The “outlaw country” genre begun by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and others has more or less eradicated the line between “country” and “country-rock.”

If they appeared on the scene today, The Eagles would almost certainly be considered a country music group. But who cares about labels? The Eagles produced terrific music for well over 40 years.

Sadly, Glenn Frey died in January, 2016 while recovering from gastro-intestinal tract surgery. He will be greatly missed.

Gipsy Kings, Hotel California:

The Gipsy Kings were born in Arles and Montpelier in southern France. Their families had been gitanos, gypsies who had fled from Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War.

In southern France, the musicians Jose Reyes and Manitas de Plata had popularized a type of music called rumba flamenca. This was a popular music that derived from a kind of fusion between flamenco and salsa.

After that duo split up, Jose Reyes began a band with his sons, Nicolas and Andre Reyes. They subsequently added three more of Jose Reyes’ sons, three of their cousins Jacques, Maurice and Tonino Baliardo, and formed a band called Los Reyes.

Initially, the group traveled around France performing at festivals and weddings. Because they spent so much time traveling like gypsies, the group changed its name to Gipsy Kings.  Below is a photo of the Gipsy Kings from 1989.

Gipsy Kings began issuing albums, but with disappointing sales. However, their third self-titled album struck gold. That album was released in the U.S., and spent 40 weeks on the charts. This was surprising success for a Spanish-language album.

One of the most popular singles on the Gipsy Kings album was the band’s cover of Hotel California. Here is a video of Hotel California by the Gipsy Kings.

The Gipsy Kings begins with a slow flamenco riff on guitar. It then shifts to a fast-paced salsa rhythm for Hotel California. As you can see from this music video, rumba flamenca is a terrific, bouncy, danceable genre. The musicians have a great time with this tune, which seems tailor-made for a Latin version.

After all, the Eagles initially characterized their own song as “Mexican reggae,” and the elaborate guitar runs and trills from the Gipsy Kings seem tailor-made for this cover.

The Gipsy Kings sing the song in Spanish, except that they shift to English for the chorus.  This tune was featured in the 1998 Coen Brothers cult classic movie The Big Lebowski.

The Gipsy Kings continue to perform today; however, the only original members still remaining in that group are Nicolas Reyes and Tonino Baliardo.

SkaDaddyZ, Hotel California:

I must confess that writing this segment caused me a fair amount of difficulty and confusion. I possess an MP3 file of a Hotel California cover, ostensibly by the ska punk group Reel Big Fish. However, I obtained that tune from a source that is known to mistakenly attribute the source of music files.

So I looked on the Web for copies of Hotel California by Reel Big Fish. I found several videos of Hotel California by garage bands (often incredibly untalented), purporting to be “in the style of the Reel Big Fish cover” of the song.

OK, it looked like I was getting close. Then I found a Web site that contained audio files of a number of Reel Big Fish songs. However, under the audio file labeled “Hotel California, Reel Big Fish,” several comments claimed that the song was not by Reel Big Fish at all, but instead by a group called SkaDaddyZ.

Below left is a photo of the West Coast ska-punk group SkaDaddyZ.

The West Coast ska punk group SkaDaddyZ.

The West Coast ska punk group SkaDaddyZ.

The situation was compounded when I attempted to find “Hotel California” by Reel Big Fish on Spotify. Spotify has a large catalog of Reel Big Fish songs, but there is no Hotel California cover by that band. So I became suspicious.

Finally, I found a live video of Hotel California, attributed to SkaDaddyZ. Next, I found on Wikipedia a bio of SkaDaddyZ; it states that the group “had a hit with their cover of Hotel California.”

When I played that video, it was identical to my music file that was attributed to Reel Big Fish. So my guess is that the Hotel California cover I was searching for was actually performed by SkaDaddyZ. And here it is, presented for non-commercial use.

As you can see, the video is a mixture of clips of the band, interspersed with shots of them performing Hotel California live.  The SkaDaddyZ Web site describes them as a band whose genre is “ska, rasta or punk.”

To my mind, the version is a fusion of reggae with punk. The band features a horn section with trumpets and saxophones, an extremely frenetic beat, and staccato rapid-fire drumming.  I find their high-energy sound both amateurish and appealing. The musicians seem to be having a good time.

The verses are slowed down and presented at a measured pace. However, the chorus bops along at a very rapid clip, carrying the listener along for the ride.

The group SkaDaddyZ was formed in 1993 and hails from Oxnard, California. Apparently there is a rather active reggae-punk community on the West Coast. Two of the band’s members are Zorba Cruz and Blake Cruz.

They are brothers of Brandon Cruz. He was a child actor on the TV series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Cruz subsequently carved out a career in rock music. He was the lead vocalist for the punk-rock group Dr. Know, and for a time was lead vocalist for another punk group, Dead Kennedys.

And that’s all I know about SkaDaddyZ, although it appears that the group continues to exist.  However, it’s a bummer that their best-known song is widely attributed to another band!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Hotel California
Wikipedia, Eagles
Wikipedia, Gipsy Kings
Wikipedia, SkaDaddyZ

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

Roll Over Beethoven: Chuck Berry; The Beatles; Electric Light Orchestra

Hello there! Our song this week is Roll Over Beethoven, a terrific ‘roots’ rock ‘n roll song by the great Chuck Berry, who died just two days ago. We will review the original version, and we will also discuss cover versions by The Beatles and by Electric Light Orchestra.

Chuck Berry, Roll Over Beethoven:

The great Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry died on March 18, 2017. He was 90 years old, and was the ‘grand old man’ of rock ‘n roll. There is no way we can do justice to Chuck’s life, career and influence in a short blog post. So we will simply dedicate this post to him and his amazing contributions to rock music.

Chuck grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in St. Louis. He became interested in rhythm and blues, and both Chuck’s guitar-playing style and his flamboyant showmanship were inspired by blues guitarist T-Bone Walker.

Chuck began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson. However, after a few years Chuck became the primary singer-songwriter and leader of this band. Below is a photo of a young Chuck Berry sporting a beret.

At the suggestion of blues great Muddy Waters, Chuck auditioned for Leonard Chess of Chess Records. At the time Berry was primarily interested in rhythm and blues.

The Chess Records studios had signed the greatest blues singers of the era, so were uninterested in Chuck Berry as a bluesman. However, they urged him to write a “country-rock” song, when they learned that the Johnnie Johnson Trio would use covers of country songs in their own playlist. So Chuck sat down and wrote the song Maybellene, which shot up to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.

Over a ten-year period, Chuck Berry charted a number of hits that established him as one of the great pioneers in rock music. Even though Chuck was a 30-year old black ex-con, his songs brilliantly conveyed to his primarily white, middle-class teen audience the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.

Roll Over Beethoven was written by Chuck Berry and released by Chess Records in 1956. The notion is that Beethoven would roll over in his grave, had he been alive to see the advent of rhythm & blues.

The tune travels squarely in the groove of Chuck Berry’s hit-making formula. It combines an iconic guitar riff (one that closely resembles the guitar solo in Johnny B. Goode) with a series of rapid-fire lyrics.  The singer asserts a desire to alert his disc jockey about a particularly fine R&B song.

I’m gonna write a little letter,
Gonna mail it to my local DJ
It’s a rockin’ rhythm record
I want my jockey to play
Roll over Beethoven, I gotta hear it again today.

You know, my temperature’s risin’
And the jukebox blows a fuse
My heart’s beatin’ rhythm
And my soul keeps on singin’ the blues
Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news

Roll Over Beethoven contains allusions to several popular songs.
“Early in the Mornin'” is the title of a Louis Jordan song; “Blue Suede Shoes” refers to the Carl Perkins song; and “hey diddle diddle”, from the nursery rhyme “The Cat and the Fiddle”, is an indirect reference to the Chess recording artist Bo Diddley, who was an accomplished violin player.

Roll Over Beethoven achieved only modest success following its release. It made it to #7 on the Billboard R&B playlist, but only to 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, it has subsequently become an R&B anthem, one of the classic rock ‘n roll songs. Rolling Stone magazine rated it as #97 on their list of The 500 Greatest Rock and Roll Songs of All Time.

The song has been extremely popular with other rock groups. At present there are at least 100 covers of Roll Over Beethoven, by artists ranging from Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Rivers to The Byrds, Ten Years After and Cliff Richard.

Here is live video of Chuck Berry performing Roll Over Beethoven.

As we have mentioned in earlier posts, Chuck frequently went out on tour by himself, in order to save money.  He then contracted with local authorities to provide him with a backup combo. His practice was to simply show up at a concert, begin playing, and expect the musicians to follow his lead.

When he was fortunate, Chuck would get musicians who knew his songs and could play rock ‘n roll. However, at other times he would end up with classical or jazz performers, who may have been accomplished musicians, but who often knew nothing whatsoever about rock music.

Here, you can see that Chuck’s piano player seems familiar with rock ‘n roll, and provides a frenetic backdrop to Chuck’s music. Chuck throws in a few of his patented moves during this tune. We also see a few seconds of fans bouncing and jiving as Chuck plays.

One has conflicting emotions regarding Chuck Berry and his career. Certainly he was one of the great seminal artists who created rock ‘n roll as it now exists. His contributions as a singer-songwriter and artist are quite extraordinary.

It is also the case that Chuck had to overcome a number of barriers on his way to success. Throughout his life, he remained bitter about the small amount of money he received for his early records. In the early days of rock ‘n roll, the music industry routinely short-changed performers. So Chuck was not happy to see artists like The Beatles, who got their start playing covers of his own songs, become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.

However, Chuck also gained a reputation for being difficult to work with.  He also refused to play benefits or charities.

Chuck was in trouble with the law on several occasions. In high school, he was sentenced to a youth reformatory for armed robbery. In 1962, he was convicted of violation of the Mann Act (transporting a minor across state lines for the purposes of sex) and served a year in jail.

Then in 1979, Chuck served five months in prison for tax evasion. And in 1990, Berry settled lawsuits over a number of complaints that he had installed video cameras in the women’s restroom of a restaurant that he owned.

Because of his importance in the history of rock music, Chuck Berry received virtually every honor in the field. He was a shoo-in for induction into the 1986 inaugural class at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the comments in his bio was that he “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.” How true! Chuck also is ranked fifth on the Rolling Stone list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Chuck Berry left an amazing body of work. His iconic guitar riffs are diligently practiced by every rock guitarist. His songs influenced an entire generation of rock musicians. In particular, British Invasion artists loved Chuck, covered his songs, and incorporated many of his mannerisms into their own work. Chuck — hail, hail, Mr. Rock and Roll!

The Beatles, Roll Over Beethoven:

The Beatles are the greatest pop group of all time. They were formed in 1957 as the Quarrymen, consisting of high school guitarist John Lennon, a group of Lennon’s schoolmates from Quarry Bank School, and Lennon’s friend Paul McCartney.

The group were inspired by the British skiffle band fronted by Lonnie Donegan. A few months later, they added the 14-year-old guitarist George Harrison. Shortly afterwards, Lennon’s school chums dropped out, and for a short period The Quarrymen became a 3-person guitar band.

In early 1959, the group added Stu Sutcliffe on bass guitar. Later that year they changed their name to The Beatles, a shout-out to one of their idols, Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

The Beatles made the transition from garage band to a tight, professional band during a series of residencies playing at clubs in Hamburg, Germany’s tough, gritty Reeperbahn district.

In the U.K., the Beatles’ breakout year was 1963, the year in which the group blazed out of Liverpool to become a national phenomenon, and when “Beatlemania” officially erupted in Britain.

Although the Beatles had released a couple of singles in the U.S. in 1963, they did not sell well, and in addition there were royalty issues with the company, Vee-Jay, that had sub-contracted to sell the Beatles records in America.

However, by December 1963, the phenomenon of Beatlemania began to spread to the U.S. The record I Want To Hold Your Hand became a runaway best-seller in the U.S. and hit #1 in January, 1964.  A triumphant tour of the U.S. began in February, 1964, established the Beatles as the dominant new group in rock music, and officially set off the British Invasion.

Below is a publicity photo of the Beatles in Paris in 1964. They are joined by a female model, and are wearing “Gallic” hats.

The song Roll Over Beethoven was one of the favorite cover songs performed by the Beatles. Early in their career, before Lennon and McCartney took over writing all of the Beatles’ songs, The Beatles playlist was loaded with covers of songs by other artists.

The Beatles picked out songs that highlighted their vocal and instrumental strengths. Roll Over Beethoven served as a spotlight for George Harrison on lead vocals and lead guitar. The Beatles continued using Roll Over Beethoven in concert, even after nearly all their playlist consisted of Lennon-McCartney songs.

Here are the Beatles in a live performance of Roll Over Beethoven. This took place in a concert at Washington Coliseum on Feb. 11, 1964.

You can see why Roll Over Beethoven would be a favorite for The Beatles. The beat is infectious, and Chuck Berry’s rapid-fire lyrics propel the song along. This is an historic occasion, as it was the Beatles’ first concert in the U.S.

The group had arrived in New York and took a train to Washington D.C. The train was met by 10,000 fans when it arrived in D.C. The Beatles performed a set of 12 songs, 8 of which were Lennon-McCartney tunes. Roll Over Beethoven was the first song on their playlist for this concert.

The other covers were the Meredith Willson tune, Til There Was You, a sweet ballad sung by Paul, and the final two hard-rocking covers, the Isley Brothers Twist and Shout with Paul on lead, and Long Tall Sally, featuring Paul’s best imitation of Little Richard.

As you can see, this is just the beginning of Beatlemania in the U.S., with the 8,000 fans screaming as their Beatles perform.

Here is another live video clip from the Beatles, of considerable historical interest.  This was the Beatles performance of Roll Over Beethoven at a concert in Amsterdam on June 5, 1964.

Look carefully at the drummer in this video. He is visible for only a couple of seconds at the very beginning and end of the clip. It is not obviously not Ringo Starr; it is Jimmie Nicol.  And here is the back-story.

In June, 1964, the Beatles were scheduled to play a few European dates before setting out on an Australasian tour. Just before they were about to depart, Ringo developed tonsillitis and was hospitalized. When it turned out that Ringo would not be able to join the group, they had to decide on the spot whether or not to cancel their tour.

Eventually they decided to continue the tour. Beatles producer George Martin suggested Jimmie Nicol, as Martin had employed him as a session musician. Nicol had also played drums on an album of Beatles covers, so he was familiar with their playlist. Jimmie Nicol was brought in at the last minute as the Beatles replacement drummer, and played with them throughout the tour.

This marked an amazing transformation for Nicol. Overnight, he went from being an anonymous drummer to one of The Beatles. He began receiving sacks of fan mail, was besieged by groupies after concerts, and joined John Lennon for post-concert all-night pub crawls and brothel tours.

As a result of the tremendous publicity he received for sitting in with the Beatles, Nicol assumed that his career would take off afterwards. Instead, at the end of the tour, he simply vanished back into the British music scene.

Unfortunately, Jimmie Nicol’s brief brush with fame turned out to be the worst thing that happened to him. First, it was jarring to be toiling anonymously, then suddenly thrust into the limelight, only to be bounced back into obscurity.

Furthermore, after Nicol went from being paid union scale to being compensated as a star, he had considerable difficulty returning to working-class status. A few years after the Beatles’ tour, Nicol declared bankruptcy.

That Thing You Do : Cinema Quad Movie Poster

That Thing You Do : Cinema Quad Movie Poster

As a bit of trivia, in 1996 Tom Hanks wrote the script for a movie called That Thing You Do. The film follows a garage band called The One-Ders as they try to break into the music business. Eventually, the group scores a major hit with their song That Thing You Do. The poster for the movie is shown at left.

Unfortunately, the group disintegrates immediately after their song becomes a big hit, and most of the group members then return to their normal lives. Apparently Hanks was inspired by the experience of Jimmie Nicol in writing the script for this film.

After 1964, the Beatles released a number of path-breaking albums. They took rock music on an incredibly creative journey, inspiring and opening the doors for all the groups that followed them.

Burnt out from their non-stop travels, the Beatles stopped touring in 1967 and spent the remainder of their time in the studio.  Eventually, creative tensions and philosophical differences split the group apart. The Beatles completed recording of their final album, Abbey Road, in fall 1969, and the group subsequently disbanded.

But what an amazing journey the Beatles took us on! Their early work featured great upbeat pop music from a talented and incredibly tight quartet.

However, their later albums such as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and the White Album revolutionized rock music and stretched the boundaries of this field.

John Lennon was tragically assassinated in 1980, and George Harrison died from lung cancer in 2001. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr continue to perform today. The Beatles were, simply, the best ever.

Electric Light Orchestra, Roll Over Beethoven:

Electric Light Orchestra was an extremely successful group for about a 15-year period. The group was the brainchild of Birmingham musicians Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan.

Wood initially envisioned a band that would produce a fusion of rock and classical elements. He pictured a band that would include
violins, cellos, string basses, horns and woodwinds to give their music a classical sound, taking rock music in the direction to “pick up where the Beatles left off”.

Wood was a guitar player, vocalist and songwriter for the band the Move. To found his new group, Wood brought in multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jeff Lynne from another Birmingham band and drummer Bev Bevan from the Move. Below is a photo of the founding members of Electric Light Orchestra from April 1972. From L: Jeff Lynne; Bev Bevan; Roy Wood.

The group decided on the clever name Electric Light Orchestra. One meaning of their name is that the group combined electric music with a “light orchestra.” A second meaning would be the association with an “electric light” bulb.

To highlight this, the group initially adopted a logo where the acronym for their band, ELO, is written out in a script that has considerable similarity to the General Electric logo. This is shown below left.

Original logo for Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO.

Original logo for Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO.

In addition to Wood, Lynne and Bevan, the group added keyboards, bass, cellos, and violin. They released a critically-successful album and embarked on a tour.

However, friction developed between the band members, and Roy Wood and other band members departed while the second ELO album was being recorded. Several of the musicians had problems with the band’s manager. In addition, during their first tour the group had significant technical difficulties balancing the sound of the electric and acoustic instruments.

Following this split, many people anticipated that ELO would fold without founding member Roy Wood. However, at that point Jeff Lynne took over the songwriting and arranging duties. Furthermore, the string instruments adopted new pickups; this solved the technical difficulty of allowing the strings to be heard over the guitars.

At this point, ELO became a pop powerhouse. They issued a number of top-selling albums, and developed a lush signature sound that included strings, synthesizers, and significant overdubbing.

Roll Over Beethoven was a natural choice for a ‘rock chamber orchestra.’ This became ELO’s signature song, and the band employed Roll Over Beethoven as their closing number in live concerts.

ELO recorded an 8-minute version of Roll Over Beethoven that appeared on their second album ELO2. The song was released as a single in Britain and became a top-10 hit. ELO released a shorter version of Roll Over Beethoven in the U.S.

Here is ELO performing Roll Over Beethoven live. This took place on the show Midnight Special, on Aug. 17, 1973.  The group is introduced by Richard Pryor.

This is quite a clever version of Roll Over Beethoven. The song begins by incorporating snippets of music from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Immediately afterwards, the tune is kicked off with a classic Chuck Berry guitar lick.

Sporting a luxuriant Afro, Jeff Lynne is featured on lead vocals and guitar. However, the star of the piece is Wilf Gibson, who is clad in a cape and who produces some amazing riffs on electric violin.

This is a very energetic rendering of Roll Over Beethoven. Among other aspects of the performance, it is apparent that cellos were not meant to be treated in this manner.

ELO continued through the 70s and early 80s as a hit-producing machine. They sold over 50 million records worldwide. ELO placed 15 songs in the top 20 in the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

For their 1978 Out Of The Blue tour, the stage was shaped like a huge flying saucer. Below is a photo of ELO on that tour.

In 1980, Jeff Lynne co-wrote the music to the musical film Xanadu. his had a fascinating history. The movie, starring Olivia Newton-John, was a gigantic bomb; however, the film soundtrack was a smash hit.

Through the years, the membership of ELO changed significantly; however, Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan and keyboard player Richard Tandy continued as founding members of the group. But in 1986, Lynne essentially left the group and they disbanded.

Lynne subsequently teamed up with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty to form The Traveling Wilburys. At that time, Bev Bevan formed ELO II. Bevan and his associates released a couple of albums and toured until 1999, when ELO disbanded.

Up to this point, the name “ELO” was jointly owned by Bev Bevan and Jeff Lynne. However, in 2000 Bevan sold his share of the naming rights to Lynne, who began issuing ELO albums, particularly retrospectives, re-masters and box sets of previous ELO hits.

Then in 2014, Lynne formed a group that he called “Jeff Lynne’s ELO.” The name was chosen to differentiate this ensemble from Bev Bevan’s group, and also various other ELO spin-offs and tribute bands.

Jeff Lynne’s ELO included keyboardist Richard Tandy and violinist Chereene Allen; it also utilized members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. They performed a concert at London’s Hyde Park for 50,000 people. I saw the DVD of this concert and have to say it was pretty amazing.

Along their musical journey, ELO accrued a devoted group of fans and sold a ton of records.  But the response of critics was somewhat mixed.  Some were impressed by the fusion of strings and rock band elements.  Others felt that the group depended very heavily on special effects from the recording studio.

However, there seems little doubt that Jeff Lynne turned out to be an extremely creative songwriter and arranger, and that ELO prospered under his leadership.  Four members of ELO (Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan and Richard Tandy) will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017; the band was elected in the first year that they were nominated for the Hall of Fame.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Roll Over Beethoven
Wikipedia, Chuck Berry
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Chuck Berry bio
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, Electric Light Orchestra
Wikipedia, Jeff Lynne

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

Baker Street: Gerry Rafferty; Foo Fighters; Rick Springfield

Hello there! Our song this week is Baker Street. This is a great pop song, with a memorable saxophone solo. We will review the original version by Gerry Rafferty. We will also discuss versions by Foo Fighters and by Rick Springfield.

Gerry Rafferty, Baker Street:

Gerry Rafferty was a Scottish singer-songwriter. He was born in 1947 to a working-class family in Paisley, Scotland. Rafferty’s mother introduced him to Irish and Scottish folk songs. Below is a photo of Gerry Rafferty performing.

Rafferty was inspired to a career in music through British Invasion artists such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones. He joined a number of bands that had little commercial success. One of his bandmates in a group called The Humblebums was Billy Connolly, who subsequently became a star comedian in the U.K.

Stealer's Wheel performing. Gerry Rafferty (L) and Joe Egan (R).

Stealer’s Wheel performing. Gerry Rafferty (L) and Joe Egan (R).

In 1972, Rafferty joined forces with Joe Egan to form the duo Stealer’s Wheel. They had one big hit, Stuck In The Middle With You. That song, produced by the great American producer-songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, reached #8 on the Billboard pop charts and #2 in Canada.  At left we show Stealer’s Wheel performing in concert.

The song Baker Street was released on Gerry Rafferty’s second solo album, the 1978 release City to City. This was a “break-through” album for Rafferty. First, it followed a three-year hiatus during which time Rafferty was unable to release a record, because he was tied up in legal issues related to the breakup of his previous band, Stealer’s Wheel.

Second, City to City contained Rafferty’s two big solo hits: Baker Street and Right Down The Line. Baker Street hit #2 on the Billboard pop charts; the song was also a major hit around the world.

In Baker Street, the singer reminisces on his highly unsatisfying life. He is drinking too much, and the big city (London) has lost its appeal for him.  In addition, he and his friends have big plans for the future that never seem to materialize.

Winding your way down on Baker Street
Light in your head, and dead on your feet
Well another crazy day, you drink the night away
And forget about everything

This city desert makes you feel so cold
It’s got so many people but it’s got no soul
And it’s taken you so long to find out you were wrong
When you thought it held everything.

You used to think that it was so easy
You used to say that it was so easy
But you’re tryin’, you’re tryin’ now.
Another year and then you’d be happy
Just one more year and then you’d be happy
But you’re cryin’, you’re cryin’ now.

However, the real ‘hook’ in Baker Street was the alto saxophone solo, played by Raphael Ravenscroft. In fact, following Gerry Rafferty’s death, I was struck by how many people referred to Rafferty’s “great saxophone song,” by which they meant Baker Street. Thinking about it, I guess this makes sense because once you have listened to it, the sax riff from Baker Street sticks in your brain forever.

So here is Gerry Rafferty in the “official video” of Baker Street from his City to City album.

The video shows Rafferty playing guitar and singing Baker Street in the studio. The sax solo is really haunting; it is the first and last thing you remember about the song.

Baker Street was highly autobiographical. During this period, Rafferty was staying in his hometown of Paisley, Scotland. However, he had several appointments in London to meet with lawyers on the many lawsuits stemming from the dissolution of Stealer’s Wheel.

When Rafferty was in London he stayed at a friend’s flat near Baker Street. The two would discuss their personal situations, play guitar together, and drink and talk through the night.

Although the general themes of Baker Street deal with alienation, frustration and depression, the end of the song describes an optimistic new beginning.
The resolution of Rafferty’s legal and financial frustrations accounted for the exhilaration of the song’s last verse: “When you wake up it’s a new morning/ The sun is shining, it’s a new morning/ You’re going, you’re going home.”

There was an interesting controversy regarding Raphael Ravenscroft’s saxophone solo on Baker Street. Ravenscroft insisted that he had composed the solo himself, while Rafferty claimed that he told Ravenscroft precisely what to play.

The controversy was resolved when an early demo of Baker Street turned up. On the demo, Rafferty was playing the solo part on guitar; this proved that Rafferty had composed the solo himself.

Gerry Rafferty was always uncomfortable with fame, and took considerable steps to avoid the limelight. For example, he refused to play concert tours in the U.S., which limited his exposure and earning power.

In addition, Gerry was uneasy with many aspects of the music business. He hated appearing on talk shows and giving interviews to the press, so he avoided them as much as possible. As time went by, Rafferty also became more and more reluctant to give live performances.

Rafferty’s personal situation was exacerbated by the fact that he suffered from depression.  He had significant issues with alcoholism as well.

Rafferty had a long collaboration with producer Hugh Murphy. In fact, Rafferty’s most important album City to City was co-produced by him with Murphy.  After Murphy passed away in 1998, Rafferty became more and more reclusive.

In 2000, Rafferty issued an album that was available only through a Website that he had created. In 2004, Rafferty announced that he would issue a free download on his Website every few weeks. However, only a couple of downloads ever appeared on that site.

In November, 2010 Gerry Rafferty was admitted to Royal Bournemouth Hospital, suffering from multiple organ failure. His condition improved sufficiently that he was taken off life support and released from the hospital.

However, on Jan. 4, 2011, Gerry Rafferty died of liver failure. This is a real shame, as he was a genuinely talented musician.

In his few big hits, Rafferty showed considerable promise as a songwriter. He was very effective at channeling his feelings in his songs; in particular, his tunes highlighted his own sense of alienation and depression.

Gerry Rafferty will live on through his three big hits: Stuck In The Middle With You, performed with Stealer’s Wheel; Baker Street; and Right Down The Line.

Foo Fighters, Baker Street:

Foo Fighters have been a remarkably successful band for the past two decades. Their front man and founder was Dave Grohl, who had been the drummer in the grunge band Nirvana.

However, in 1994 that band ended suddenly with the suicide of their lead singer, Kurt Cobain. At that time, Grohl had amassed a number of songs that he had written during his time with Nirvana. Below is a photo of Dave Grohl performing with Foo Fighters at the event V2001.

Grohl had never recorded any of his songs while he was with Nirvana, as he felt that his work could not compete with that of Cobain. But after Cobain’s death, Grohl went into the studio and recorded 15 of his tunes. Grohl played most of the instruments for what he envisioned as a one-man project.

However, the demo tape from Grohl’s recording session began to circulate around the music industry, and this generated interest in producing an album. So Grohl formed a quartet with himself on guitar, together with bassist Nate Mendel, guitarist Pat Smear, and drummer William Goldsmith.

The band’s name “Foo Fighters” was taken from a term used by World War II pilots to describe UFOs they encountered while flying missions. These were colloquially referred to as “foo fighters.”

Cover of the 1997 Foo Fighters album, The Colour and the Shape.

Cover of the 1997 Foo Fighters album, The Colour and the Shape.

Over the past 20 years, Foo Fighters have sold over 30 million records. Four of their albums have won Grammy Awards for Best Rock Album. For what it’s worth, the group’s musical style has been described as either alt-rock or post-grunge.

Whatever style you ascribe to Foo Fighters, it has proved extremely popular, and Dave Grohl has acquired a reputation as one of the major spokespersons for current pop music.

Here is a music video of Foo Fighters doing a cover of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street. This was a cut from their 1997 album, The Colour and the Shape.  The cover of that album is shown above left.

I haven’t been able to find live video of the band playing Baker Street. This video splices in clips of Dave Grohl and his bandmates, with shots of the band in live performance.

Foo Fighters converts Rafferty’s great pop song into a neo-grunge format. In this version, the saxophone part is played on guitar. At the 4-minute mark of the video, the guitar solo from Rafferty’s Baker Street is reprised.

Foo Fighters have seen a few personnel changes since their inception. Original drummer William Goldsmith quit the band in 1997 and was replaced by Taylor Hawkins. Lead guitarist Pat Smear also quit the group in 1997. Although Smear returned to the band in 2005, the current lead guitarist is Chris Shiflett.

Around 2001, Foo Fighters appeared with members of the band Queen on a few occasions. In March 2001, Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins inducted Queen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then joined the surviving members of Queen in performing a live number. Foo Fighters and Queen also performed together at a couple of other concerts.

In May 2015, Foo Fighters were the last musical act to appear on the David Letterman Show when Letterman retired. The end of Letterman’s final appearance consisted of a series of clips from Dave’s show, while the Foo Fighters tune Everlong played in the background; this was a song
which Letterman said had significant meaning for him after his heart surgery in 2000.

At the moment, Foo Fighters have not performed since Nov. 2015. However, tour dates are scheduled for a tour of Europe beginning in June of this year. Foo fanatics — stay tuned.

Rick Springfield, Baker Street:

Rick Springfield is an Australian singer-songwriter and actor. He grew up in the state of Victoria, where his father was an Aussie army officer.

There are plenty of actors who dabble in music: Jeff Daniels, Bruce Willis, and several others come to mind. However, Rick Springfield was a serious rock musician first, and from that he moved into acting. Below is a photo of Rick Springfield performing at the American Music Awards in 1982.

Springfield was a member of a few Australian bands that experienced limited commercial success. However, in 1969 he became the lead guitarist and vocalist in the quartet Zoot.

Zoot had a trademark gimmick, where the whole band dressed up entirely in pink satin. This made them extremely popular with teen-age girls. On the positive side, they sold a lot of records and gained fame; but on the negative side, this made it difficult for music critics to take them seriously.

Zoot had a couple of successful records in Australia, but the group disbanded in 1971 and Springfield went solo. In 1972, Rick Springfield moved to the U.S., where he signed a recording contract with Capitol Records.

His first single record released by Capitol, Speak To The Sky, peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. Rick then switched to Columbia Records, who marketed him as a teeny-bopper idol, in the manner of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond.

For the most part, Springfield wrote his own songs, and often performed several of the instrumental parts on his albums. His albums were fairly successful; however, he really hit the jackpot in 1981 with his song Jessie’s Girl. That song’s smash success led to Sringfield winning the Grammy Award in 1981 for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.

Here is Rick Springfield in a live performance of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street.

Isn’t this enjoyable? The song was included on Rick Springfield’s 2005 album The Day After Yesterday.  That album consisted mainly of covers of Springfield’s favorite songs.

At the start of the song, Springfield announces that, as a singer-songwriter, this is a song “that I wish I had written.” Gerry Rafferty’s version of this song is so iconic that Springfield essentially duplicates it.

You can see from Rock Springfield’s boyish good looks and self-deprecating manner that he makes an excellent teeny-bopper idol. Rick’s voice is not particularly strong, but on this song it probably doesn’t matter.

Significant stretches of the song are given over the extended sax solo, here played by Dino Soldo, that defines this tune. It’s a very enjoyable cover of Rafferty’s great song.

While Rick Springfield was writing songs and recording albums, he began a side career in acting. He garnered a number of parts in TV shows, beginning in 1977 with a role in an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.

Rick Springfield as Dr. Noah Drake on the ABC soap General Hospital.

Rick Springfield as Dr. Noah Drake on the ABC soap General Hospital.

By the time 1981 rolled around, Rick figured the odds were high that he would not make it as a pop music star. So he took a lead part in a TV soap, General Hospital, where he played the role of Dr. Noah Drake.  At left is a photo of Springfield as Dr. Drake.

Wouldn’t you know it, no sooner did he gain a following for his role in General Hospital, when his song Jessie’s Girl became a #1 hit! For a couple of years, this made Springfield’s life extremely hectic. He was taping episodes of General Hospital between tours with his band.

This lifestyle was hard to maintain, and Springfield’s role as Dr. Noah Drake lasted less than three years. However, his success as a rock star boosted his fame on the TV soap opera, and vice versa.

Once Rick Springfield left General Hospital, he landed roles in several feature films and TV series. Then in 1995 he was a member of the original cast of Smokey Joe’s Café, a musical that featured the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

From time to time, Springfield took on acting roles that were directly related to his singing career. On the third year of the cable TV series Californication, Rick played a twisted version of a rock singer teeny-bopper idol; it was widely believed that this role was a send-up of his real-life pop music career.

On the TV series Hot In Cleveland,
He played the role of a toll booth worker who pretended to be the famous singer/musician Rick Springfield in an attempt to impress women.
And in 2015, Rick Springfield played the role of Greg alongside Meryl Streep in the rock-music movie Ricki and the Flash.

Rick Springfield continues to tour, and he currently has two touring groups.  In the first, he appears with a five-piece rock band, and a second features Springfield solo in an acoustic set.

Rick also continues to act. He has a recurring role in General Hospital where he returns as Dr. Noah Drake. In 2010 he released an autobiography, Late, Late at Night: a Memoir. It peaked at #13 on the New York Times bestseller list, and is included in the top 25 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of Great Rock Memoirs of All Time.

So, Rick Springfield appears to be a multi-talented guy. From outward appearances, he is a competent rock musician, a capable actor, and he must also be a fine writer. We wish him all the best, despite his bad fortune with Jessie’s girl.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Baker Street (song)
Wikipedia, Gerry Rafferty
Wikipedia, Foo Fighters
Wikipedia, Dave Grohl
Wikipedia, Rick Springfield

Posted in Classic Rock, Pop Music, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Hey Joe: The Byrds; Jimi Hendrix Experience; Ten Years Later

Hello there! Our song this week is Hey Joe, a dark and brutal blues song. We will review an early version by The Byrds. We will also discuss versions by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and by Ten Years Later.

The Byrds, Hey Joe:

The Byrds were one of the most influential bands in rock music. Although Bob Dylan essentially invented the field of folk-rock music, it was The Byrds who made it commercially successful. Following that, the group then spearheaded the psychedelic rock movement. Finally, members of the Byrds were also prominent in the development of country-rock, even at a time when their own commercial success was waning.

Roger McGuinn had previously played banjo and guitar with folk groups such as the Chad Mitchell Trio. In early 1964 McGuinn met up with Gene Clark, who had previously sung with the New Christy Minstrels. The two of them began to perform at LA’s The Troubador folk club, and they were soon joined by David Crosby.

Here is a photo of the Byrds circa 1965. Back row L to R: Gene Clark; Michael Clarke; Roger McGuinn; front row: Chris Hillman; David Crosby.

The trio began performing in West Coast coffeehouses and clubs, and were taken on by manager Jim Dickson. At this point, the group were inspired to combine Bob Dylan’s folk music stylings with the pop sounds originating from British Invasion music.

Their big break occurred when Dickson got hold of an acetate disc of Dylan’s unreleased Mr. Tambourine Man. He persuaded the group to work up a folk-rock arrangement of the song. Although they were not impressed with Dylan’s song (!), they did produce their own version.

The group then added drummer Michael Clarke and bassist Chris Hillman, changed their name to The Byrds (a deliberate misspelling, in the spirit of ‘The Beatles’), and in January 1965 they recorded the single Mr. Tambourine Man.

In Mr. Tambourine Man, The Byrds developed a winning formula. It started with The Byrds’ tight vocal harmonies, combined with the trademark ‘jangly’ sound produced by Roger McGuinn’s custom-tuned Rickenbacker 12-string guitar.

The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man was released in April 1965 and shot up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts. They followed that up with another smash hit, Turn! Turn! Turn! This was a cover of a folk song that Pete Seeger had adapted using quotes from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

In early 1966 the Byrds released the single Eight Miles High, which many people regard as the first psychedelic-rock song. It inspired an entire genre of psychedelic pop tunes.

The song Hey Joe has a fascinating provenance. There have been claims that it is a version of a traditional song; however, no one has been able to locate the original.

Hey Joe was most likely written in about 1962 by Billy Roberts, a West Coast folk singer and songwriter. It is possible that Roberts was influenced by a 1953 country music hit called Hey Joe, that was written by Boudleaux Bryant and performed by Carl Smith.

In any case, Hey Joe tells the story of a man who is carrying a gun, with the intention of shooting his unfaithful wife. He plans to run off to Mexico after the deed is done.

Hey Joe is dark and foreboding, in that Joe shows no remorse; in fact, after he has carried out his plan, he seems to exhibit some pride in the act. Here are some of the lyrics in Jimi Hendrix’s version of the song.

Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand
Hey Joe, I said where you goin’ with that gun in your hand
I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady
You know I caught her messin’ ’round with another man
Yeah, I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady
You know I caught her messin’ ’round with another man
Huh! and that ain’t cool

Hey hoe, I heard you shot your mama down
You shot her down now
Hey Joe, I heard you shot your lady down
You shot her down in the ground yeah!
Yeah!

Yes, I did, I shot her
You know I caught her messin’ round messin’ round town
Huh, yes I did I shot her
You know I caught my old lady messin’ ’round town
And I gave her the gun,
I shot her

David Crosby heard the song in the early 60s, and was taken by the tune. He taught it to his bandmates in The Byrds, and also introduced it to other West Coast musicians. The Byrds frequently performed it live; however, the other members of the band were not as impressed by the song as Crosby, so the group did not release it until their 1966 album Fifth Dimension.

One of the groups that saw the Byrds perform this song was a California garage band called The Leaves. Unlike The Byrds, The Leaves were enthusiastic about the tune, and they produced the first recorded version of Hey Joe. Their single was released late in 1965 and reached #31 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Here is a live performance of Hey Joe by The Leaves.

Two singers on The Leaves share lead vocals on this tune.  One person provides the voice of “Joe,” while the other takes the lines of the person questioning him.

The Leaves recorded a fast-paced version of the song. As you will see, The Leaves were strongly influenced by David Crosby. The instrumental backing is strongly reminiscent of The Byrds’ folk-rock style, from the jingling guitar to the insistent bass line and the group’s harmonies.

By the way, Robby Krieger, the guitarist for The Doors, claims that the melody for the Doors’ signature song Light My Fire was inspired by Hey Joe by The Leaves.  I have listened to both songs, and I must admit I don’t see the connection.  Do you?

Next, here are The Byrds showing off their live version of Hey Joe.

This performance takes place at the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Note that David Crosby announces that Jimi Hendrix will appear later in the festival.

I find this a fascinating video clip. First of all, David Crosby’s enthusiasm for the song is apparent. It is easy to see why many artists were inspired to perform it after hearing Crosby and the Byrds play it. Roger McGuinn chips in some of his classic folk-rock guitar licks accompanying Crosby.

Overall, this is not a very successful Byrds tune, and one can see why their recording of Hey Joe was never released as a single. One of the trademark features of The Byrds was their beautiful close harmonies. These are completely lacking in this song, which is a solo effort by David Crosby.

Like all superstar ensembles, there were significant tensions within The Byrds. As they transitioned from folk-rock to psychedelic rock to country-rock, serious differences of opinion arose regarding the appropriate musical direction for the band.

The first to leave the Byrds was Gene Clark, in February 1966. Of the many reasons leading to Clark’s departure, the most serious was his crippling fear of flying. After Clark had a panic attack and had to disembark from a plane before it took off, he was basically given an ultimatum that
“If you can’t fly, you can’t be a Byrd.”
Clark then left the Byrds and began a solo career.

David Crosby and Michael Clarke left the group in fall 1967. During the Byrds’ performance at the Monterey Pop Festival that summer, Crosby’s rambling, disjointed rants to the crowd had ticked off his bandmates. One final straw was that during Monterey Pop, Crosby sat in with Byrds rivals Buffalo Springfield.

So Crosby was fired from the Byrds in October 1967, for being a pain in the ass and being impossible to work with. However, Crosby arguably had the last laugh, as he turned around and formed a supergroup with two other disaffected folk-rockers, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.

During the period 1968-73, the Byrds added guitarist and pianist Gram Parsons to their group. Under considerable pressure from Parsons, the group transitioned from psychedelic rock to country and western. The group moved to Nashville to begin recording their first country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

However, there soon developed significant friction between McGuinn and Parsons. Apparently the final straw for Parsons was that on three of the songs in that album, McGuinn deleted Parsons’ originally recorded lead vocals, substituting his own instead.

Parsons then departed for a solo career, but died in Sept. 1973 at age 26 from an overdose of morphine and alcohol. Two of the other original Byrds members have also passed away. Gene Clark died from a bleeding ulcer in 1991 at age 46; and Michael Clarke died in 1993 at age 47 from liver failure.

But The Byrds really left their mark on rock music. They blazed a trail as innovators in the fields of folk-rock, psychedelic pop and country-rock. Quite a legacy!

Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hey Joe:

Jimi Hendrix is generally considered the greatest rock guitarist of all time. He had a meteoric career – Jimi appeared almost out of nowhere; took the field of rock music by storm; and died less than five years after the start of his solo career.

James Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle, and was a shy, introverted youth who spent considerable time in foster care, as his parents were both alcoholics who became violent when intoxicated.

Jimi Hendrix’s first musical instrument was a ukulele with just one string. In 1958, he got his first guitar and taught himself to play by learning the guitar parts to famous rock ‘n roll songs.

Below is a photo of Jimi Hendrix performing at Royal Albert Hall, in Feb. 1969.

After being discharged from the Army, Jimi moved to Nashville, where he performed at a number of black venues on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. He also worked as a session musician for artists such as Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.

In 1964, Hendrix moved to New York and began frequenting clubs in Harlem. He was hired as a guitarist with the Isley Brothers backup band, and later worked with Little Richard’s backup group The Upsetters.

Hendrix had trouble with both bands, as he persisted in showing off his flashy guitar technique, when he was supposed to be toiling in the background for the star vocalists. So Jimi assembled his own band and began performing in Greenwich Village.

There, Hendrix caught the eye of Chas Chandler. Chandler had been the bass player for the British Invasion group The Animals. Upon leaving The Animals, Chandler was looking for groups to produce.

Chandler brought Hendrix to London, and hooked him up with guitarist Noel Redding, who agreed to play bass with the group, and drummer Mitch Mitchell. They formed a power trio called The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

After rehearsing for a couple of weeks in fall, 1966, the band was ready to go. Their first performances must have been phenomenal, because in November 1966, when the Jimi Hendrix Experience appeared at London’s Bag O’Nails Club, the audience included
Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Kevin Ayers.

Cover of the album Hey Joe, released in Italy in 1968.

Cover of the album Hey Joe, released in Italy in 1968.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience released three hit singles in the U.K. – Hey Joe, Purple Haze, and The Wind Cries Mary – before they ever issued an album. At left we show the cover of an Italian album called Hey Joe that was released in 1968.

Hey Joe was the first single released by the Jimi Hendrix Experience in Dec., 1966. It was a significant hit in the U.K.; it reached #6 on the U.K. pop charts, and attracted much attention to the group. Interestingly, a single released a few months later in the U.S. failed to chart.

Here is the Jimi Hendrix Experience in a live performance of Hey Joe from 1967.

Although the audio and video quality are limited, you can instantly see why Hendrix was such a bombshell. He throws in several tricks including playing the guitar behind his head, and playing the guitar with his mouth.

In contrast to the bouncy, fairly upbeat versions by The Leaves and The Byrds, Jimi’s version is much slower, and frankly more chilling. The beginning of each verse is introduced by a slow, deliberate run on guitar and bass.

Then Jimi throws in a series of runs and trills on his Fender Stratocaster. There is a reasonable amount of feedback and distortion on this song, but nothing like the distortion in his songs like Machine Gun, or the version of the Star-Spangled Banner that he unleashed at Woodstock.

Since Jimi was left-handed, he simply took a Fender Stratocaster and turned it upside-down. Note that this reverses the ‘normal’ positions of the high and low strings on the guitar.

I find Hendrix’ version of Hey Joe quite disturbing. His protagonist seems rather proud that he has offed his unfaithful woman. He appears confident that he will make it to Mexico, where no one will ever bring him to justice. Note that the lyrics in Hendrix’ rendition of Hey Joe are significantly different from those in the Byrds’ version.

I have to admit, in 1967 I was not ready for Jimi Hendrix. Although the technical elements were astounding – how could all this sound emanate from just a trio? – I found the feedback and distortion disconcerting.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience lasted for three mind-blowing albums. The first album was titled Are You Experienced? His other two albums were Axis: Bold As Love, and Electric Ladyland. After that, the trio broke up at the end of June, 1969 due to personal and musical differences.

In the U.S., Jimi Hendrix’ big break-through occurred at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was included at the festival largely through the urging of Paul McCartney. Hendrix gave an unforgettable performance at Monterey, capped off when he set his guitar on fire at the end of his set.

Hendrix followed this up with a sensational performance at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969, at a time when he was the highest-paid rock musician in the world. The highlight of his set at Woodstock was Jimi’s explosive performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, which featured
copious amounts of amplifier feedback, distortion, and sustain to replicate the sounds made by rockets and bombs.

Jimi Hendrix performed with various groups of musicians. In 1970 he assembled a new trio, replacing Noel Redding from the original Jimi Hendrix Experience with Billy Cox. In mid-1970 this group commenced the City of Love tour.

In September the City of Love tour had reached Europe. Hendrix spent the night of Sept. 17 with girlfriend Monika Dannemann. Dannemann testified that they had a bottle of wine, visited some friends, and returned to her apartment.

The following morning, Dannemann found Hendrix unconscious and unresponsive. He was taken to a hospital, but pronounced dead early that afternoon. A post-mortem autopsy revealed that Hendrix had died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates.

In addition to his amazing guitar skills, Hendrix was constantly discovering creative ways to harness technology with his guitar. In order to maximize the feedback and distortion, he would turn up every knob on his Marshall amplifiers to the highest level; this became known as the “Hendrix setting.”

He pioneered the use of pedals to create special effects, such as the wah-wah, Fuzz Face and Octavia pedals. Jimi also employed a Uni Vibe phase shifter, in order to simulate the modulating effects of a rotating Leslie speaker.

Jimi Hendrix’ tragic death was a major loss for rock music. Although he only performed as a solo artist for about five years, his output was truly mind-blowing. He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Rolling Stone magazine voted Hendrix #1 on their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and also Guitar World ranks him as the top guitarist of all time.

Ten Years Later, Hey Joe:

Ten Years After was a British blues-rock quartet. They reminded me a lot of power-rock groups like Cream.

The group was formed in 1966 from the remnants of earlier bands. Below is a photo of the band in concert. From L: Leo Lyons, bass; Alvin Lee, lead guitar; Ric Lee, drums; Chick Churchill, keyboards.

The name of the group came from the fact that they were formed a decade after Elvis Presley first appeared, and Elvis was a major inspiration for Alvin Lee.

Ten Years After had some success in the UK; however, until 1969 they were relatively unknown in the US. In July, 1969 they had performed at the Newport Jazz Festival; this was the first year that Newport invited rock bands to participate.

However, Ten Years After exploded on the scene when they appeared at Woodstock in August 1969. The band performed a searing set of hard-rock blues songs, capped off by their signature tune I’m Going Home.

I’m Going Home by Ten Years After was also one of the highlights of the Woodstock concert film. Alvin Lee’s break-neck guitar runs and lightning-fast fingering were a revelation in the Woodstock movie.  This resulted in major publicity for the group, and labeled Alvin Lee as a ‘guitar hero.’

Attempting to capitalize on their exposure from Woodstock, Ten Years After became headliners at a number of major concerts, including the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.  The group also charted twelve albums in the U.K. pop charts.  Somewhat surprisingly, the group’s fame never translated into commercial success in the U.S.

The only single that Ten Years After ever charted in the Billboard Hot 100 was the 1971 release I’d Like To Change The World, which hit #40. And even this was not a positive experience. On the basis of that tune, their record company put pressure on them to concentrate more on straightforward pop songs.

However, Alvin Lee much preferred hard-rock blues songs to commercial pop. So in 1974, Ten Years After disbanded, and their members went their separate ways.

After 1974, Alvin Lee led a few other blues bands. In 1978, he formed the group Ten Years Later, which included Tom Compton on drums and Mick Hawksworth on bass.

So here is the power trio Ten Years Later in a live performance of Hey Joe from 1979.

Mick Hawksworth chips in on bass – let’s face it, you can never have too much double-neck bass! And Tom Compton provides some impressive drumming. But clearly Alvin Lee is the dominant force in the group, as both lead singer and guitarist.

The Ten Years Later version of Hey Joe is clearly based on Jimi Hendrix’ version of the song. Like Hendrix, Alvin Lee performs it at a slow and stately pace. The song is a terrific showcase for Alvin Lee’s pyrotechnics on his Gibson “Big Red” ES-335 guitar.

Lee throws in some blistering licks, and in particular shows off the exquisite fretwork that he demonstrated at Woodstock.

In 1983, the members of Ten Years After re-united and played at the Reading Festival. The group subsequently re-united a couple more times, and produced a couple more albums. However, once again their records were commercial disappointments.

In 2003, Ten Years After replaced Alvin Lee with Joe Gooch. Lee continued on as a solo performer. In 2013, Alvin Lee died while undergoing what was described as a “routine medical procedure.”

Watching Alvin Lee play guitar, we see just how exceptional a musician can be, and still end up with relatively little commercial success. Lee was in considerable demand as a live performer, and his records sold well in the U.K., but he never broke through to superstar status like so many of his British blues compatriots.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Hey Joe
Wikipedia, The Byrds
Wikipedia, The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Wikipedia, Jimi Hendrix
Wikipedia, Ten Years After

Posted in Classic Rock, Folk-rock music, Heavy Metal, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Barbara Ann: The Regents; The Who; The Beach Boys

Hello there! Our song this week is Barbara Ann. This is a bouncy, catchy doo-wop song. We will review the original version by The Regents, and we will also discuss versions by The Who and by The Beach Boys.

The Regents, Barbara-Ann:

The Regents were a New York-based doo-wop group in the 1950s and 60s. The original vocal group was called The Desires. It consisted of Guy Villari on lead vocals, tenors Sal Cuomo and Chuck Fassert, and baritone Donnie Jacobucci.

In 1958 the group recorded a couple of songs. One of these was Barbara-Ann, which was written by Chuck Fassert’s brother Fred Fassert. But when the group was unable to land a recording contract, they disbanded – I guess you could call them “unfulfilled Desires.”

Then three years later, a group called The Consorts (also called The Darts) was looking for material to record. One of their members, Eddie Jacobucci, found his brother Donnie’s demo of Barbara-Ann.

The recording was brought to Eddie Chichetti, the owner of Cousins Records. Chichetti liked Barbara-Ann, and subsequently contacted the songwriter, Fred Fassert. But when Fassert showed him the original demo by The Desires, Chichetti decided to release that version instead.

One additional wrinkle was that, in the meantime, The Desires had changed their name to The Regents. I have heard two possible explanations for this new name: first, the group had cut a couple of demos at Regent Sound Studio; second, lead singer Guy Villari smoked Regents cigarettes.

Cover of an EP of music by The Regents, issued in Sweden.

Cover of an EP of music by The Regents, issued in Sweden.

At left is the cover of a four-song EP by The Regents. This EP was issued only in Sweden, and just 2000 copies were printed.

So, in 1961 Cousins Records released Barbara-Ann in New York. The song was a big hit locally, and became the best-selling song in New York. At that point, Cousins leased the song to Roulette/Gee Records, who could release the song worldwide.

Like many doo-wop songs, the lyrics to Barbara-Ann are extremely simple, even trivial. The singer is smitten by a girl whom he met at a dance. He expresses his conviction that Barbara-Ann is superior to other girls with whom he had danced.

Went to a dance
Looking for romance
Saw Barbara-Ann
So I thought I’d take a chance

Barbara-Ann, Barbara-Ann, take my hand
Oh, Barbara-Ann, Barbara-Ann, take my hand
You’ve got me rockin’ and a-rollin’
Rockin’ and a reelin’
Barbara-Ann
Ba ba ba ba Barbara-Ann

Barbara-Ann became a big hit for The Regents; it reached #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. It starts with the instantly recognizable line, Ba ba ba ba Barbara-Ann, sung a capella by the lead singer. Here is the audio for Barbara-Ann by The Regents.

In 1973, director and writer George Lucas included The Regents’ version of Barbara-Ann in his movie American Graffiti. This was a coming-of-age film set in southern California in the late 50s. American Graffiti was one of the first movies that replaced a film score with a series of original rock and roll songs.

Here, the audio of The Regents singing Barbara-Ann is interspersed with
random clips from American Graffiti. You can see the great attention to detail in George Lucas’ film. Those great hot rods from the 50s are featured performers in this film, that also highlights drive-in soda shops, high school dances, the legendary West Coast DJ Wolfman Jack, drag racing, and a little bit of sex.

Like the best doo-wop songs, Barbara-Ann is an effervescent, bouncy tune. It satisfies my “doo-wop criterion” that it is terrific for singing in the shower.

Before releasing The Regents’ demo, Cousins Records overdubbed some instrumental parts. The net result is highly professional for doo-wop songs. In some cases, doo-wop groups were taken directly from the streets into the studios, where their songs were taped. It is claimed that in some cases groups had never seen the inside of a studio before their songs were recorded.

This explains the extremely poor quality of some doo-wop songs. However, that is not the case here. The Regents managed to release a song with relatively high production values, without losing the “street-corner” character of a doo-wop group.

After the success of their first record, The Regents released a second single, Runaround. It was also fairly successful, reaching #28 on the Billboard pop charts. Afterwards, two more records followed. However, when these songs did not make the charts, the group became involved in a dispute over royalties with Gee Records, and subsequently disbanded.

In 1964, the group changed their name to The Runarounds, but again failed to crack the pop charts. In 1995, The Regents re-formed; at that time, Guy Villari was the only original member in the new band.

Here is a re-shuffled version of The Regents, performing live in 2012 at the Beacon Theater in New York.

This is video from an “oldies” concert. After all this time, The Regents sound pretty good. They are still capable of producing an authentic doo-wop sound, and they perform here before an enthusiastic crowd.

Well, The Regents were pretty much “one-hit-wonders,” but their big hit Barbara-Ann spawned a number of covers. This is not surprising, as the melody and tempo are so catchy in this “feel-good” song.

The Who, Barbara Ann:

The Who were one of the greatest rock groups of all time. Three members of the band (everyone except Keith Moon) had been high school classmates in Acton, England.

Originally, Roger Daltrey had been the leader of a group called The Detours. He recruited John Entwistle and then Pete Townshend. In early 1964, the group changed their name to The Who when they discovered another group with a name similar to The Detours. Below is an early photo of The Who. From L: lead guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend; drummer Keith Moon; lead vocalist Roger Daltrey; bassist John Entwistle.

By the time I saw The Who in London in 1966, they were well on their way to becoming the quintessential hard-rock band. The Who were innovators in using the massive stacks of Marshall amplifiers to create ear-splitting volume. Plus, by turning the amplifiers up to unheard-of levels, they could produce significant feedback and distortion, which they utilized in their music.

Eventually, Pete Townshend began writing all of the songs for The Who. He has turned out to be an exceptionally creative songwriter. When I caught The Who in live performance in 1966, my recollection is that the only non-Townshend song they performed was Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues.

However, in their early days, The Who performed covers from several other artists. Roy Orbison was one favorite of the boys, and apparently they also included a cover of Barbara Ann (note that in later versions of the song, the hyphen in the girl’s name disappears).

So here are The Who doing a live cover of Barbara Ann.

This is from a concert in 1965. Here, drummer Keith Moon sings the falsetto parts. The Who are much more spiffy in these early days, decked out in suits and ties. It also has some enjoyable crowd shots, with people bopping in the aisles.

This video includes great clips of Keith Moon’s drumming, and also some closeups of John Entwistle’s impressive fingering on bass guitar. Unfortunately, we see almost nothing of Pete Townshend playing the guitar. For the most part the group simply presents a vigorous but straightforward version of this doo-wop classic.

And here is a later clip, this one from the documentary about The Who, The Kids Are Alright.  The Who rehearse Barbara Ann, and play snippets from the song.

Clips of the band rehearsing are interspersed with interviews with various band members.  Again, the song is played primarily for kicks.  We get some thrash guitar and a few nifty moves from Pete Townshend, and things totally disintegrate at the end of the song.

Later on, The Who became known for their showmanship, as well as their aggression onstage. Roger Daltrey nearly always appeared bare-chested, and would fling his mic high into the air. Although John Entwistle was relatively sedate, he was known for his blistering fingerwork.  Entwistle is considered by many to be the greatest rock bass guitar player of all time.

However, Townshend and Moon were often completely over the top. At the end of performances, it was not unusual for Moon to smash his drum set, and in a couple of instances he quite literally blew up his kit.

Pete Townshend often seemed to be in the midst of a manic outburst. He would fling himself about the stage – leaping in the air and kicking his legs apart; twisting his body around; and showing off his legendary ‘windmill’ style on guitar power chords. Townshend also became famous for smashing his guitar to smithereens at the conclusion of a performance.

At some point, a friend of mine summarized the British Invasion in a single sentence: “The Beatles were about love; the Stones were about sex; and The Who were about aggression.”  Like most pithy epigrams, the statement is facile and only partly true; nevertheless, it captures the essence of much of the music of that era.

After my first experience at a Who concert, I thought they were essentially a novelty act: big on aggression and showy displays, but short on talent. I suspected that they would rapidly burn out.

Well, Keith Moon did die from a drug overdose in 1978; and John Entwistle died from a cocaine-induced heart attack in 2002. However, The Who have enjoyed an amazingly long and distinguished career, and Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are still touring at age 70. Who would have guessed?

Pete Townshend’s body of work is exceptionally impressive. He wrote the rock opera Tommy, and a sophisticated song cycle Quadrophenia. He also produced some exceptional hard-rock anthems like Baba O’Riley and We Won’t Get Fooled Again.

So, as Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey still rock on, we wish them all the best. Thank goodness they didn’t take their own advice and “die before I get old.”

The Beach Boys, Barbara Ann:

The Beach Boys were one of the greatest rock and roll groups in history. They were formed in 1961 in California, and initially were primarily a family band. The three Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl teamed up with cousin Mike Love and family friend David Marks. They were initially known as the Pendletones, named after the Pendleton wool shirts popular with California surfers.

At first, the Beach Boys sang while the instrumental work was provided by studio musicians. However, the brothers gradually became proficient on various instruments – Carl on electric guitar, Brian on bass and Dennis on drums. Fairly early on, David Marks left and was replaced by Al Jardine.

Below is a photo of the “classic lineup” of the Beach Boys. This photo was taken in Nov. 1964. From L: Mike Love; Al Jardine; Brian Wilson; Dennis Wilson; and Carl Wilson.

Early on, the Beach Boys were managed by Murry Wilson, the father of the three Wilson brothers. However, it became clear that Brian Wilson was the brains of the outfit. Brian wrote the songs, oversaw the productions, and began to take control of all major decisions. In sharp contrast to Brian’s brilliance, Murry seemed to have truly awful instincts regarding the group’s musical directions and financial decisions. Once Murry was ousted as the group’s agent, Brian took charge.

The good news was that Brian was a musical genius. His songwriting and producing was incredibly creative. Under his leadership, the Beach Boys became a tight musical combo, known for their trademark close harmonies and their mastery of the West Coast “surf rock” genre.

Here is the audio of the Beach Boys singing Barbara Ann. This is by far the best-known version of this tune. It appeared on the album Beach Boys Party!, that was released in Dec. 1965.

There is a fascinating story behind this song. As you can hear, the Beach Boys had apparently been up all night drinking in the studio. Dean Torrence, from the group Jan and Dean, was recording in the next studio. Apparently his recording session was not going well, so Dean wandered next door and joined the Beach Boys.

With the tape rolling, the group began an impromptu version of Barbara Ann, with Dean Torrence singing lead.  There is laughter and running commentary between the verses, and the group screw up the lyrics.

During an instrumental break, you can hear “It’s Hal and his famous ashtrays!” This refers to studio drummer Hal Blaine, a member of the southern California “Wrecking Crew” of studio musicians. Blaine played drums on a number of Beach Boys records, and here he was clinking ashtrays together.

Apparently Capitol Records included this song on the album Beach Boys Party! without notifying the group. The record company executives knew that Brian Wilson was a perfectionist, and would have vetoed such a messy, amateurish effort.

However, the producers realized that this was an amusing, spontaneous version of this doo-wop classic. They were betting that teenagers would get a kick out of the tape. And from the public reception, Capitol Records was correct. The single of Barbara Ann hit #2 on the Billboard pop charts in early 1966.

I have to side with the Capitol Records executives. The lyrics to Barbara Ann are truly trivial; however, the song is so upbeat that it almost invites parody. Whenever one plays Barbara Ann, the tendency for everyone to join in on the chorus is almost irresistible.

And despite the informality of the recording session, the Beach Boys manage to produce their trademark harmonies on Barbara Ann. Along with Good Vibrations and Fun Fun Fun, Barbara Ann is considered one of the Beach Boys’ “signature songs.”

Now here is a live performance of Barbara Ann by the Beach Boys.

Here, the Beach Boys are performing on the Jack Benny Show in 1965. This is one of the later live performances I have seen with Brian Wilson playing bass. Brian had stopped playing on Beach Boys tours in 1964, after he suffered a panic attack on an airplane.

So it’s nice to see Brian joining his mates on this song. As you can see, by this time the Beach Boys had pretty well mastered their instruments. In particular, Carl Wilson produces some admirable “surf guitar” licks.

As time went by, Brian Wilson became the dominant force behind the Beach Boys. In the studio, he pioneered a number of innovative techniques, working closely with the Wrecking Crew studio musicians. Brian Wilson’s work became progressively more complex and novel.  This culminated in the Beach Boys’ seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds.

Pet Sounds is now considered one of the greatest pop albums of all times. In addition to extremely sophisticated vocal harmonies, recording techniques and instrumental arrangements, the album also incorporated a number of unique sounds – sleigh bells, bicycle horns, barking dogs.

Pet Sounds was essentially Brian’s individual creation: his pet project, if you will. In that album Brian shared very personal experiences and thoughts. The other Beach Boys simply showed up to record their vocals, did not play instruments, and otherwise had essentially no input into the project.

Unfortunately, Brian Wilson found himself under terrific strain. A combination of drug-related and mental health issues made him withdraw more and more to himself. Brian was able to oversee one more record – the stunning, extraordinarily complex 1966 single Good Vibrations. However, that project took an exceptionally long time to complete, for what was at the time an unprecedented cost.

Eventually Brian became unable to function normally; as a result, he was unable to complete his next album concept, Smile. That particular album eventually became the most controversial and anticipated ‘unfinished album’ of all time.

From 1967 to about 1977, Brian Wilson became a less dominant force in the Beach Boys. He collaborated with other band members on songs and albums, but was often unable to bring projects to completion.

After 1977, Brian Wilson went through an extremely difficult period. The combination of mental health issues plus the effects of psychedelic drugs took a tremendous toll on him. Eventually Brian became a patient of a highly controversial psychotherapist, Eugene Landy.

In the meantime, the other Beach Boys worked with additional members and studio musicians to produce records. They have now been touring for well over 50 years without Brian, and have been making records for about 40 years.

Over the years, the Beach Boys became primarily an “oldies” band. When they toured, they played a catalog of their older hits, which was just fine with their legion of fans.

At the beginning of their career, some critics considered the Beach Boys to be a low-brow garage band. However, over the years people have realized the complexity in their music, the sophistication of Brian Wilson’s innovative techniques and his mastery of the recording studio.

The Beach Boys (the three Wilson brothers, Mike Love and Al Jardine) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. The Pet Sounds album has been named to the Grammy Hall of Fame. And in 2001 the Beach Boys were given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

So we salute Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, and we hope they find that “surf’s up forever.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, The Regents (doo-wop band)
Wikipedia, American Graffiti
Wikipedia, The Beach Boys
Wikipedia, Brian Wilson
Wikipedia, The Who

Posted in Doo-Wop, Pop Music, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment