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

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

Dire Straits and Walk of Life:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover of the 1985 Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shooter Jennings and Walk of Life:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Brad Paisley and Walk of Life:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

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

Posted in Classic Rock, Pop Music, Rock and roll, Rockabilly | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

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

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

AC/DC and Highway to Hell:

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

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

Logo for the heavy-metal band AC/DC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phish and Highway to Hell:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fans at a concert by the band Phish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hayseed Dixie and Highway to Hell:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Who, Pinball Wizard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here are The Who performing Pinball Wizard live.

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

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

Tommy, Elton John and Pinball Wizard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McFly, Pinball Wizard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rolling Stones, Sympathy For The Devil:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Plus One and Sympathy For The Devil:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guns ‘N Roses, Sympathy For The Devil:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rickie Lee Jones, Sympathy For The Devil:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

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

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

Jailhouse Rock: Elvis Presley; Queen; ZZ Top

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

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

Elvis Presley:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The song and movie Jailhouse Rock:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queen, Jailhouse Rock:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ZZ Top, Jailhouse Rock:

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

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

Billy Gibbons circa 1973.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

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

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

Tiny Dancer: Elton John; Tim McGraw; John Frusciante

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

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

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

Elton John, Tiny Dancer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost Famous and Tiny Dancer:

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

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

Poster for the 2000 movie Almost Famous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim McGraw, Tiny Dancer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Frusciante, Tiny Dancer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

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

Posted in Country music, Pop Music, Rock and roll, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

The Bee Gees, Stayin’ Alive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bee Gees during their “disco” era.

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

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

Saturday Night Fever and Stayin’ Alive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Springsteen, Stayin’ Alive:

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NSYNC, Stayin’ Alive:

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

Promoter Lou Pearlman with his group The Backstreet Boys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

Here are NSYNC in a live Bee Gees tribute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

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

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