*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
~ ~ ~
Some songs require one listen – perhaps not even a full listen – for them to become a Favorite Song. It doesn’t happen very often nowadays. Frankly, I’m 53 now, and the older I get the less absorbent my brain seems to be to new songs. I recently heard “Nigel Hitter,” by the UK band shame, and immediately loved it. (The new album Drunk Tank Pink is great.) But I do know that rarely since 1992 has a song struck me as immediately as “Seasons.”
I didn’t know much about Chris Cornell or Soundgarden then. An old roommate had invited me to see them live once, in 1990, but I wasn’t very adventurous at that time. I wish I’d gone, because it turns out that Chris Cornell is one of my favorite singers ever! I like Soundgarden, and I love Cornell’s voice.
But what hooked me on “Seasons” wasn’t Cornell’s voice as much as his acoustic guitar. There’s not much going on in the song, just that guitar and voice (I think there may be an overdubbed guitar or two at some points), but it’s plenty. An acoustic song can be tricky to pull off. For every great, moving, acousticpop song that’s been released over the years, there are severalreallylame ones. It’s difficult to be heartfelt, but not sappy; subtle, not boring; meaningful, not obvious. In “Seasons,” Cornell pulls it all off beautifully.
Cornell’s guitar work is deft and interesting, and holds one’s ear even as it repeats – which it does, but in a good, mesmerizing way. The song opens with some strange chords and a twisty acoustic hook.
At 0:29 he plays the backing riff, and his voice takes over. Cornell sings with power and authority, yet there’s a depth of feeling he conveys that’s beyond what most other rock singers possess. His voice has the same quality that a great soul singer has, like Aretha Franklin or Marvin Gaye. It’s not just technical ability, but a capacity for personal connection and vulnerability. The lyrics are a bit obscure, but they convey a feeling of life moving so quickly that you find yourself falling behind.
On first listen, the song seems repetitive. But actually, it has many subtle changes throughout. At 1:15 he sings the first chorus, “And I’m lost behind …” over the continued guitar riff. But at the second chorus, 2:10, he adds a new guitar riff, running up the neck, giving the song an urgency. At 2:47, over a third riff, he shows off his belting voice, but he easily goes back to the gentle croon. The bridge section, from 3:44 to 4:30, is lovely and ends in yet another lovely display of acoustic chords and strumming. It all finally gives way to a reprise of the opening. It’s a beautiful song.
Peter Gabriel (Melt) 1980, Geffen Records. Producer: Steve Lillywhite. In My Collection: Vinyl, 1988.
(Five Minute Read)
IN A NUTSHELL:Peter Gabriel, the 1980 album often called “Melt,” is an artistic statement that owes as much to Hitchcock as Western rock and pop. Its dark stories of assassins, burglars, obsessives, and psychotics are menacing, suspenseful, and great fun. And when he gets serious, as on the epic closer “Biko,” it delivers devastating emotion. The instrumentation and musicians, including Robert Fripp, Dave Gregory and Phil Collins, create unusual sounds that make the album too weird for pop, too smart for rock, but just perfect for me.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20
Peter Gabriel was all over MTV with “Shock the Monkey,” a strange, cold, yet oddly danceable track that sounded cool and looked like a horror movie. He ran through the forest in a suit. He wore weird makeup, played the claves among dancing floor lamps, and then got crushed in a room. Three little people even attacked him! Meanwhile, cute monkeys made frightened, frightening faces. Whether you loved the song or hated it (I loved it), it was unforgettable. But it was shocking, too. It was an old (at least 30!) guy I’d never heard of who seemed to be legitimately creepy, unlike all those acts that had come to seem weird-for-the-sake-of-weirdness.
And the MTV VJs talked about him like we all should know him. It was as if he’d been around for 10 years, another Elton John or David Bowie, yet the name meant nothing to me. Of course, Gabriel was well-known, just not by me. He’d been the leader of Genesis back when they made intricate prog-rock music instead of mainstream pop, dressing as a flower or a fox in a dress or a disturbing bubble-covered “Slipperman” thing. He also made songs I’d heard on rock radio, like “Solsbury Hill,” that I didn’t know were his. His 1986 record So eventually made him one of the biggest stars of the decade. At that point, having been convinced by my friend Josh that I wouldn’t be disappointed, I went out and got some early records, each one, confusingly, titled Peter Gabriel.
His 1980 release, often called “Melt” because of the cover, is one of my favorite records ever. It didn’t make my original list, as I mentioned in my intermission post, because I’d forgotten to listen to it when I put the list together! (I’m not the most organized writer.) But it would have elbowed its way into top 20 territory, I’m sure.
(Melt) opens with the dark, desperate “Intruder.”
It’s like a Hitchcock movie put to song. On top of a sinister drum beat, strange piano and whirring noises, Gabriel takes on the persona of a creeping home invader. That drum sound would become the sound of the ’80s, as it is the first recorded use of drummer Phil Collins’ “gated drum2” sound. Together, the instrumentation and unceasing drum beat, the haunting backing whines, and Gabriel’s ability to inhabit the part like a brilliant actor make it one of the creepiest songs around. (Oh, and at 2:20 there’s a scary xylophone solo!)
“No Self Control” continues that xylophone sound, layering it over guitar wizard Robert Fripp’s distorted, mechanical guitar. At 1:30 the song changes, and Collins adds some signature drum fills (1:46, 2:02). Gabriel’s vocals are the star, as he sings about obsession that turns violent. It’s a very cool, very strange song. The instrumental “Start” is basically an introduction to one of (Melt)’s most popular songs, “I Don’t Remember.”
This song demonstrates the mad alchemy of Peter Gabriel and producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham. Its pounding drums, this time from Jerry Marotta, paired with Tony Levin’s Chapman stick, a wonderful bass instrument, give the song the feel of a dance club track. But underneath it, Fripp and XTC man Dave Gregory wage a wicked guitar duel on opposite speakers. Gabriel again takes the persona of a man with severe mental issues, this time under duress and finding pure amnesia. It ends with a full 50 seconds of noise, but remains my second favorite song on the album.
“Family Snapshot” is the most disturbing song on the album, a first-person account by an assassin3. Its 80s yacht-rock sax and ballad-y instrumentation don’t make it more listenable, but the song keeps the record interesting. By the way, while listening to (Melt), see if you can hear any cymbals. Hint: you won’t. Gabriel forbid Collins and Marotta from using any cymbals. Just a fun fact!
However, I think I hear some hi-hat from Collins in “And Through the Wire.” The bass from John Giblin is bright, and he and Collins master the tricky time signature in the verses. The guitar here is from The Jam‘s Paul Weller, and it sounds new-wave-cool, as at 3:10. It seems to be a song about long-distance love, and Gabriel sings it with high energy. The song falls apart brilliantly around 4:20. But precision is restored on the next track, the very popular “Games Without Frontiers.”
I knew that Robert Fripp played on (Melt), and for years I thought he played the sinewy guitar line that carves its way through the song. However, that’s David Rhodes doing a great Fripp impression. It’s one of the catchiest songs around, so catchy that even annoying whistling doesn’t damage it. Kate Bush sings the title in French, “Jeux Sans Frontieres,” a title taken from an old European game show, which was called “It’s a Knockout” in the UK. It’s a song about global politics, and Gabriel again demonstrates the versatility of his voice, sneering and chiding.
On “Not One of Us,” Fripp’s strange guitar gets another chance to shine.
The lyrics are about accepting others. “It’s only water/ In a stranger’s tear,” Gabriel sings. Musically, the song is dominated by Giblin’s skronky bass line and Marotta’s drums. The chorus is super catchy, sung in Gabriel’s infectious, electric tone. After 3:22 there’s a cool ending that allows Marotta to shine some more (without cymbals.) “Lead a Normal Life” brings back the xylophone sound, pairs it with suspenseful movie music and a few lines about living in an asylum. I don’t love it.
However, I do love “Biko,” one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard from the past fifty years. It’s amazing.
So many people have written so much about Apartheid and Apartheid-era South Africa, and I can’t add anything, except to say it was horrible. “Biko” is ostensibly about Stephen Biko, an anti-Apartheid activist murdered by police in 1977. But it’s really about strength and fighting against injustice. The song opens with a recording of an anti-Apartheid folk song, “Ngomhla Sibuyayo.” African drums give way to a buzzing guitar and an agonizing scream, and the lyrics begin as a news report of the day. It’s an extremely simple song, with minimal instrumentation, and that gives it great power. Similarly, the lyrics are sparse – relying on the listener’s knowledge of events to fill in the story. But it’s so memorable that if, like me when I first heard it, you had no idea who Biko is, it makes you want to find out what it’s about. “Biko, because.” What does that mean?
Each of the three verses can be neatly summarized as follows: this feels normal; this is actually terrible; we must work together to change it. Synthesized, keening bagpipes add to the feeling, as does Gabriel’s repeated wail, “Yihla moja! The man is dead …” It builds steadily, growing in force, and by the time he sings “Once the flame begins to catch/ The wind will blow it higher,” I always have chills, I usually have a tear. Then voices join in a singalong vocalization. It is wonderful. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs.
And it comes from someone who I thought was the weirdest guy among a collection of weirdos. I’m glad I gave him a chance.
“Heartless,” 1978 single from the 1977 Heart album Magazine. Power, musicianship, vocals.
(4 minute read)
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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I spent my teenage years, 1980 – 1986, listening to Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) radio. The 70s Classic Rock era is often reviled, only a bit less-so than the ridiculous 80s hair metal era that followed. This “Arena Rock” music featured bands with high-pitched singers, sound-alike guitar solos, pounding drums, and at least one tear-jerking, Bic-lighter-held-aloft-inspiring ballad that had all the same sounds as the other songs, only played slower.
It seems like the disdain for Arena Rock began in the 90s, when grunge and alt-rock were taking over. The artists themselves didn’t necessarily dislike classic rock sounds. Grunge stars Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell and even Kurt Cobain all expressed an appreciation of bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. But the tastemakers of the era decided that only a few bands didn’t suck, and for many the attitude took hold. It’s true that Arena Rock included some less-than-original4 artists – bands like Styx, Journey, Foreigner – but a great song is a great song, no matter the genre.
But the one that tops my list, and to me demonstrates what’s so great about Arena Rock, is “Heartless.” I love the fact that on a cursory listen it’s basic, but when you listen closely you hear the tremendous musicianship and creativity that went into it. Plus Ann Wilson has one of the greatest voices in rock history, so there’s that, too.
The song starts with a short introduction, a preview of the chorus, and even in those few seconds there’s a lot going on. Two guitars, synth, culminating in a strange, watery chord at 0:10. Then the main riff starts.
The thing about Heart from this era is that they had 3 guitar players. Nancy Wilson mainly played rhythm, but also took some leads5. Roger Fisher was a creative beast of a lead guitarist. And Howard Leeds played guitar when he wasn’t playing keyboards. If you listen closely to the riff section, you’ll hear all three doing different things in different speakers. On the left is some twangy plucking, on the right are some crunchy chords, and the main riff is centered. It’s a cool sound that’s easy to miss. Then check out Michael Derosier’s drum fill at 0:29! (He plays a lot of great fills throughout.)
The lyrics are, frankly, a bit mysterious. I’d be even more frank and say “dumb,” but I’ll give Ann Wilson the benefit of the doubt. I mean, she has the kind of pipes that she could sing my blog posts and it would sound good, so I’m not too concerned about meaning. Clearly, the verses are about some asshole dude who’s nailing a bunch of chicks without considering consequences. The first verse involves an unwanted pregnancy, the second a woman who’s bought the Lothario’s lies.
The mysterious part comes in the “Heartless! Heartless!” verses, in which she calls out this jerk, who seems to be a rock star himself, staying in a penthouse, and “sinning in the name of rock and roll.” (It’s fun to think of what handsome 70s ape she may be talking about. Robert Plant? Steven Tyler? Lemmy?) At the end of each verse she gravely chastises him with the phrase “you never realize/ the way love dies/ when you crucify its soul.” I feel he’ll be too confused to really take that admonishment to heart (no pun intended.) Is he crucifying the women’s souls? Or love’s soul? And if he did the crucifying, wouldn’t he expect it to die?
But who gives a shit, because the guitar throughout the verse is one of my favorite aspects of the song! It’s a wide-ranging riff that kind of sounds off, in that good way that great guitarists sometimes play. Plus there’s a little glissando on the second “heartless” that also wouldn’t have to be there, but just adds a cool touch to the song. I think that’s really Arena Rock’s gift to music: the nifty, multiple backing guitars. They’re not noticeable at first, but once you hear them become a necessary component of a song. When done right, it sounds amazing.
After the second chorus, at 2:27, the song takes a very 70s Rock turn for its bridge. As a variation on the main riff is plucked, mellow guitar chords swirl and an “oooo” is vocalized. The organ shimmers along, then at 2:53 provides a quick hit of the most-70s-Rock-sound ever – a Moog synth. It pops up again at 3:23, then fully rears its head at 3:36, just before the brief dual guitar solo that brings us back to the verse at 3:49. I always feel like these types of 70s breakdowns – that minute and twenty-two seconds of repetitive mellow chords and hooting curlicues – was where the listener and radio DJ would both fire up a doobie to really lose themselves in the song.
Those multiple guitars come back to support Ann’s powerful voice on a final chorus, then the last 30 seconds provide another 70s Classic Rock moment: the show-off ending. I’m not dissing it – I’m a big fan! The last 40 seconds are packed with all those guitars, and a piano, and even Ann, playing off each other and having fun. Then Derosier does a cool fill at 4:49, and the band plays a weirdly-timed variation on the main theme to end it. It’s something that makes listeners go, “wait, what was that?” and play it back. It’s a bit self-indulgent, but only mildly so, and basically demonstrates that these folks can play.
The Low End Theory 1991, Jive Records. Producers: A Tribe Called Quest and Skeff Anselm. In My Collection: CD, 1991.
(Five Minute Read)
IN A NUTSHELL:The Low End Theory is a record that is inventive and fun and makes me feel like a young man. A Tribe Called Quest use many jazz samples, which DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad mold and distort into fresh sounds. The raps are funny and smart and invite the listener into a world where beats and snippets of melody reign. Q-Tip’s smooth, laid-back flow melds beautifully with Phife’s rapid patter, and the result is a hip-hop record that I return to again and again.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20
Hip-hop is a genre that’s grown up alongside me. “Rapper’s Delight” came out when I was in 7th grade, just as I was starting to care about music. I liked that song a lot, and I still know a couple of the verses. But I eventually lost touch with hip-hop, just as I did with the middle school kids I knew then. We just didn’t have a lot in common. By college, “Yo! MTV Raps” ruled the airwaves, and white folks my age and younger immersed themselves in the music. However, my caucasian ears were conditioned by years of classic rock, guitars and the tribal mentality of 70s-80s music, and they didn’t easily adapt to the repetition and lack of melody in most hip-hop songs.
Because my appreciation of the genre is so limited, it’s hard for me to write about hip-hop. Truth is, I feel like a fraud writing about any music that isn’t guitar-based rock music. I listen to classic jazz quite a bit, but other styles are mostly background music for me. I’ll listen closely to some things7, but I don’t tend to dive in like I do with rock. But The Low End Theory is a record I really love, and so I’ll just try to explain why.
Right off the bat, the record sounds unique for pop music, sampling Art Blakey’s “A Chant for Bu” on the lead track “Excursions.”
I really enjoy jazz, and in 1991 a hip-hop act rapping over jazz samples was fairly unprecedented, to my (limited) knowledge. Rapper Q-Tip’s lyrics and flow set the stage for the album. His nickname is “The Abstract Poet,” but this rhyme is fairly direct. It describes his dad comparing hip-hop to bebop, then lays out the Tribe’s ethos of Afrocentrism and Black positivity. A sample of The Last Poets’ “Time” (2:00) acts as a bridge, but the beat keeps moving things forward. Q-Tip raps in a smooth, nasally tenor. It’s distinctive and sounds especially good next to his rapping partner Phife Dawg, who leads off on “Buggin’ Out.”
It opens with a downbeat bass line from “Minya’s the Mooch,” by Jack DeJohnnette’s Directions, but Phife (so-called because the late rapper stood 5’3″, and so was called “the five-footer”) makes it upbeat. He and Q-Tip trade verses all about what great rappers they are. And they do sound great together. They were friends since age 2 (Phife died in 2016 of complications from diabetes), and their playfulness always shines through.
So, when writing about hip-hop, am I supposed to name the samples? That will get overwhelming, and there are so many songs to mention. It is fun to hear the originals, however. Listening to them truly demonstrates the artistry of sampling, as they’re tweaked and distorted into new sounds. It’s worlds away from Vanilla Ice or MC Hammer rapping over a Queen or Rick James song. The third member of A Tribe Called Quest, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, is the DJ who put all the sounds together. Q-Tip has a massive record collection to draw from, and some of the fun for me when listening to hip-hop from this era (i.e. the five CDs I own) is knowing what the samples are. If you’re wondering, this site has an extensive list (that may be incomplete).
“Rap Promoter,” has the longstanding pop/rock lyrical theme of wanting to get paid. Q-Tip interpolates Peter, Paul and Mary in his fantastic rhymes about fat promoters shorting him, something he won’t stand for anymore. “Butter” features Phife describing his life as a lothario in high school (with “Tonya, Tamika, Sharon, Karen/ Tina, Stacy, Julie, Tracy”), until he met his match in Flo. It’s a crazy-good verbal display, and it reaches a highlight as he complains about girls changing their looks so much they’re like The Bionic Woman. “Trying hard to look fly, but yo, you’re looking dumber/ If I wanted someone like you I woulda swung with Jamie Sommer.”
The Low End Theory isn’t only built on samples. “Verses From the Abstract” features jazz bassist Ron Carter and vocalist Vinia Mojica.
Carter kills it. His bass enters at 0:17, and throughout the song plays off Q-Tips vocals. It clearly demonstrates Q-Tip’s dad’s assertion of the connection between jazz and hip-hop. These rhymes are indeed quite abstract, stream-of-consciousness that sound dreamy in Q-Tip’s thick, precise voice. I love the “in the house” chorus, when Mojica sings (for example, 1:40), and Carter plays a descending run that sounds like his bass is chuckling. This is one of my favorites on the album.
So far, The Low End Theory has been rather laid-back, but A Tribe Called Quest pick things up on “Show Business.”
The drums (from drummer Allen Schwartzberg on James Brown’s “Funky President“) and all the samples (“Wicky Wacky,” “Mandementos Black“) are super funky and sound great together. The song is about the trials and tribulations of a performer’s life, and the band invites hip-hop friends from Brand Nubian and D.I.T.C. to help out. The rhymes are funny (“they lyrics is played like 8-ball jackets;” “eat from the tree of life and throw away the verbal ham”) and together they offer a view of The Business that isn’t pretty. (But it’s funky as anything!)
“Vibes and Stuff” is a mellow, positive track about hip-hop, and it includes Phife’s funny reference to himself, “Hair is crazy curly/ flip like Mr. Furley.” “Infamous Date Rape” is a rather progressive-for-its-time song about treating women with respect, although it does make some dubious claims about a serious issue. (Making a woman’s menstrual cycle a key reason to ask for consent is, you know, problematic, but I guess if it made some man think a little about his actions we could call it a win?)
I love when childhood friends Q-Tip and Phife are rapping together about their past, and the best example of this is “Check the Rhime.”
The band uses a wickedly cool sample of the Average White Band song “Love Your Life” as the hook, and trade verses over Minnie Riperton’s “Baby This Love I Have.” Tip and Phife reminisce about the early days, and sound like they’re having a blast. The hooky chorus (“You on point, Tip?” “All the time, Phife”) is super catchy. This song also has one of my favorite rhymes in (my admittedly minuscule knowledge of) hip-hop: “Industry rule number four-thousand-and-eighty/ Record company people are shady.”
My favorite track on The Low End Theory is the closer, “Scenario,”a fun, infectious verbal free-for-all, a “posse cut,” featuring collaborators from fellow hip-hoppers Leaders of the New School. It’s a song that’s so fun and inventive, it’s remained on my playlists for 30 years.
The song’s a bouncy jam, and has an infectious jump-around beat. Its shout-along chorus (“Here we go, yo! Here we go, yo! What’s the what’s the what’s the Scenario?”) is pure party. The raps are amazing, with Phife (“all that and then some/ tall, dark and handsome”) leading things off. (“Bo knows this/ And Bo knows that/ But Bo don’t know jack/ Cuz Bo can’t rap.”) Leaders of the New School trade verses that are catchy and inventive, “from New York, North Kackalacka and Compton,” then the star of the song appears. The group featured a then-unknown 19-year-old Busta Rhymes, and his verse, introduced by Q-Tip at 2:49, is like a terrific guitar solo. It changes and builds, has a texture that’s different from the song but fits perfectly. By the time he roars “like a dungeon dragon,” I’m usually dancing around the room.
The Low End Theory is a fun record that I still listen to. I don’t know much about hip-hop and rap, but I know what I like. It’s 30 years old, but still sounds fresh to me, which is the most elderly thing I’ve ever written. Hip-hop and I have grown apart over the years, sure, but we still share some great memories!
[I]t is difficult to show that a value judgment can stand for anything that is even remotely true about music, as opposed to standing for something that is merely a personal whim on the part of the critic …10
It’s simply impossible to appreciate music outside of the context of your own experiences. To me, music IS a personal experience. If music writing isn’t based on one’s intimate connections with it, the opinion isn’t worthwhile. The writer may as well simply assess a piece of sheet music.
So I say, unequivocally and proudly, that I love New Order’s “Regret” because it reminds me of a great time in my life. Its lyrical tension between aspiration and apprehension captures the essence of my outlook in the summer of ’93. I like the riff and the bass and drums, too. It’s a good-sounding, catchy song. But it’s Bernard Sumner’s lyrics and delivery that really resonate.
The song opens with Gillian Gilbert’s shimmering synth chords, with a sample of Sumner’s guitar riff dropped on top. It’s a catchy, strummed, syncopated riff, but as a sample it sounds clipped and robotic. It’s a duality that mirrors the song, and it drew me in the first time I heard it. It was spring, 1993, in a bank parking lot in San Rafael, CA. I’d arrived a few weeks earlier as a 25-year old, after a 2800-mile drive from my childhood home.
At about 0:13, Stephen Morris’s drums crash in and the treble-y bass line from Peter Hook starts driving the song. For a long time “Regret” was the only New Order song I liked. I found them to be too synth-y and drum-programmy. Then I realized that drummer Morris is often playing drums, but is so precise and fast that it only sounds programmed! (Sometimes they are programmed.) This made me listen to them more closely, and now I like several of their songs. Also, as a bass player myself, I love Hook’s penchant for playing lead bass. He’s truly an excellent, unique bassist.
The band plays through the verse, and Sumner’s syncopated strumming sounds great through all the chord changes. Then his lyrics start. Having left everything behind, I totally bought in right away: “Maybe I’ve forgotten/ The name and the address/ Of everyone I’ve ever known/ There’s nothing I regret.” It’s only one of many lines that spoke to my new life as a transplant, wondering if landing in a faraway place with no job, no friends, and no plan was such a great idea. I told myself I didn’t regret anything just to stay afloat.
That introductory guitar sample hits at the end of every verse, leading into the chorus (1:06), and it lifts my spirits every time. Sumner’s voice isn’t powerful, but the melody in the chorus just begs a sing-along. “I would like a place/ I could call my own,” he sings. In more ways than one that’s the sentiment of anyone’s Big Move. The lyric “Wake up every day/ That would be a start” also resonated. My depression at the time brought with it several days spent lying in bed.
But the song isn’t sad and dreary! Morris plays ahead of the beat, with a danceable hi-hat shaking throughout. Hook’s lead bass line is sticky behind that upbeat, winding chorus melody. Sumner sounds a bit tired, a bit hopeful – like any human facing life and getting through the day. Some of the words are dark, but they’re set against this happy music – a damned pleasing juxtaposition. That balance is maintained all through the song.
The lyrics evoke both the excitement and anxiety of my first few weeks in Cali. So many lines connected with me. “Have a conversation on the telephone,” describes virtually every conversation I had. “You used to be a stranger/ Now you are mine.” Anyone who I met a second time fit this bill – including the beautiful young woman Julia, to whom I’m still married. “I was a short fuse/ Burning all the time” was how I felt before I decided to leave home. “You may think that I’m out of hand/ That I’m naive, I’ll understand/ On this occasion it’s not true/ Look at me, I’m not you.” As a small-town kid, this quatrain summarizes the entirety of my decision to get in my 1985 VW Jetta and get the fuck outta Dodge.
To me, “Regret” is an uplifting song, one I never grow tired of. Sure, Sumner’s lyrical coda sticks a pin in the positive thoughts generated by the catchy melody, cool riffs and hopeful lyrics: “Just wait ’til tomorrow/ I guess that’s what they all say/ Just before they fall apart.” Damn, Bernard, I was just feeling like getting out of bed! But that’s okay – overall the song retains its perfect tension and leaves me inspired. It’s a tremendous song, emotionally complex yet fun.
The band shot a video for it on a Southern California beach with David Hasselhoff, as a tie-in to the TV show Baywatch. It sort of encapsulates the song: the juxtaposition of carefree, seashore frolickers and the pale, trouser-clad band members, the most out-of-place beach-goers since The Munsters.
I think you have to take some chances in life, then accept the good with the bad. We all just have to make the best of it. If we can do so with few regrets, maybe we’ll end up happy. It’s been a long time since I made that move, and the only regret I carry about it today is New Order’s “Regret.”
IN A NUTSHELL:Amyl and The Sniffers is a loud, fast, short record that offers old-school sounds and throwback themes. These Aussies could’ve been plucked right out of 1977 London. Vocalist Amy Taylor is more of a rhythmic shouter than a singer, but it fits perfectly on top of guitarist Dec Martens’ riffs and crunch. It goes by quickly, but it leaves you happy, and ready to kick the whole world’s ass.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 80.
~ ~ ~
The very first song that Billboard magazine deemed Number 1 in the USA was “I’ll Never Smile Again,” by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra. The song featured a young Frank Sinatra crooning, “I’ll never smile again/ Until I smile at you/ I’ll never laugh again/ What good would it do.” It’s syrupy and wispy, with tinkling bells and a chorus of characterless voices backing up Ol’ Blue Eyes. It was huge, holding down the #1 spot for three months in the summer of 1940. So, when I graduated high school, any peers who didn’t like the contemporary 80s sounds, but instead had a thing for 45-year-old music, might’ve been jamming to this bop.
But let me tell you something about 80s teens: we may have been lame, but we weren’t that lame. Nobody was listening to that crap11. However, I was in the marching band, so I knew many musicians who did listen to, and enjoy, and PLAY 45-year-old music. They liked jazz music by artists like Louie Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington. This was music that was far afield from the the pop12hits of the day. Songs like “I’ll Never Smile Again,” or Bing Crosby’s “Only Forever,” which bumped Dorsey off the top spot and held it for over two months, sound primped and frail next to those other muscular, sweaty jazz sounds. The top of the pop chart, generally, has never been where the interesting music is found.
In 1974, Billboard‘s Number One song of the year was “The Way We Were,” by Barbra Streisand. In 1975, it was “Love Will Keep Us Together,” by The Captain and Tennille. Wings held the spot in 1976 with “Silly Love Songs.” However, far beyond the pop charts in the early to mid-70s, something more dangerous was bubbling under. The Stooges, The New York Dolls, and The Ramones were putting out records in the US, and in the UK, The Sex Pistols and The Clash were doing damage. Modern musicians are more likely turn to these acts when pilfering 45-year-old styles than any of the watery, safe sounds from the era’s Top Ten. I offer to you the following evidence: Amyl and The Sniffers.
Amyl and The Sniffers are a mulletted Australian band featuring three men with a woman singer who reminds me of the trailer park girls I knew in high school who I was afraid would kick my ass. They play loud, fast, catchy songs with vocals that are more shouted than sung, equal parts fury and fun blasting straight out of the speakers.
I first heard them over the summer of 2020, in the early part of the Great Lonesome. Spotify randomly played them, and I was hooked on their bouncy, aggressive clamor. The band is named after the street drug amyl nitrate, or “poppers.” Singer/shouter Amy Taylor told the BBC, “In Australia we call poppers Amyl. So you sniff it, it lasts for 30 seconds and then you have a headache – and that’s what we’re like!”
I haven’t done poppers, but I can’t disagree with her assessment of the band – although I like the ensuing headaches. Loud, fast punk rock is fine with me, but I do need some melody and something to interest me beyond speed and volume. Amyl and The Sniffers are melodic and interesting. I also like a variety of sounds and styles, and while they don’t mix up the style much, at least the songs are all about 2 minutes long so it doesn’t get old.
Apart from Taylor’s shouting (which I’ll get to), the most interesting thing about the band is guitarist Dec Martens, who gets to show off his skills right off the bat on “Starfire 500.”
About 0:53, Martens plays a solo that’s bouncy and catchy, and perhaps unusual in a punk song. The band plays through a verse and chorus before Taylor finally joins in about 1:48. She speak-sings lyrics about an attractive sex worker, and her style is somewhere between Corin Tucker, of Sleater-Kinney, and Craig Finn of The Hold Steady. She kind of sings the chorus (2:11) on this song, and Martens gets to play some cool licks about 2:30, and the boys all shout along to the chorus in their Aussie accent. It’s a good song to introduce the band.
The lyrics are great, and the clicking, crunching guitar is great. This one really is a “30 seconds and a headache” type song. The same can be said for “Cup of Destiny,” in which Taylor breaks out the signature grunt (0:23) – sometimes a squeal – she uses for emphasis. The song’s an update on the grim 70s UK “no future” sentiments. Martens gets to wedge in a brief squawky solo at 1:35. The energy is ramped up even more for “GFY,” propelled by Fergus Romer’s distorted bass guitar. It’s a song about dealing with douchebag people, with the chorus “… go fuck yourself.” Punk rock has no use for subtlety. (Here’s a cool live clip of the song.)
Amyl and The Sniffers have more to them than snotty rage and stomping beat. They have a bit of 70s hard rock and glam in them. For example, “Angel.”
It’s melodic in spite of Taylor’s style, and allows Martens to do more than a Johnny Ramone impression. His riff makes this one of my favorites on the record, and Drummer Bryce Wilson adds nice fills, too. Lyrically, it’s an unrequited love song, although Taylor doesn’t exactly try to sell the emotion of the song. She’s more comfortable yelling about the joys of playing a show in the rain, as in “Monsoon Rock.”
The band speeds up The Doors’ “Waiting for the Sun” riff, and basically runs wild with it. Martens plays a buzzing mosquito solo at 1:35 (after another of Taylor’s grunts), and the band just has the most fun possible in under two minutes. (Another kick ass live clip here.) It’s another favorite of mine. “Control” is a driving, X-ish rave-up about being in charge, and it ends with plenty of grunts and squeals. “Got You,” is a love song, actually, and has a fun, shouty chorus from the band, but gets a bit repetitive.
I really love the entirety of Amyl and The Sniffers, its energy and power, but the album closer is my favorite: “Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled).”
The opening guitar riff is an immediate classic, rising menacingly. Romer’s bass ramps things up, and drummer Wilson crashes in (0:28) and then it’s just a head-banging frenzy! The band pulls back a bit for some more Martens riffage, then plows ahead, Taylor asking the musical question, “You got a new dog/ Do you remember me?” It’s a scorching scorned-woman song with few words (two of which are “Woof! Woof!”) and lots of attitude. Martens lets loose a bunch of punk/hard rock crunch. Check out one more live clip.
There you have it: eleven songs, twenty-nine minutes. A perfect punk morsel. Amyl and The Sniffers are making my old(er)-man heart happy. The musical future is in good hands with terrific throwbacks like this.
For 18 months I dated a woman who loved Bruce. It was a lousy relationship that ended badly (her and me, not her and Bruce), and I used to attribute my disinterest in The Boss to that experience. But it was 35 years ago, and the drama of it seems so silly after all the living that’s ensued. So I gave him another listen in the past 10 years, and found I was still not susceptible. I guess it wasn’t her fault. You see, I don’t seem to get poison ivy13, and I don’t seem to get Bruce Springsteen.
Except for “Rosalita,” a joyous, raucous, multi-part spectacle with several chill-inducing swells, a funny story and about a million words. It’s not a perfect song (I’ll get to that), but to me it’s the perfect Boss song. It’s a song that makes me go, “Okay, I get why people love this guy,” even though none of his other songs seem to give me that experience. Perhaps if I rolled, naked, in a deep bed of poison ivy I would experience what it’s like to have a reaction. Maybe “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” is like a poison ivy wallow. (In a good way.)
“Rosalita” is immediately – from the first two organ chords – all about building and releasing tension. The song sits on top of a bouncy sax riff from Clarence Clemons that drummer Vini Lopez stays on top of with little rolls and fills. The E Street Band (on this album, and counting The Boss) includes a sax, a guitar, an organ, a piano, and bass and drums. This means they can throw in all sorts of interesting riffs and sounds throughout a song. In the verses, organist Danny Federici plays a lot of little curlicues, and pianist David Sancious adds nice emphasis. There’s so much good stuff going on from the whole band through the entire song.
The verses are key to how “Rosalita” works. (Here’s a link to the lyrics. You’ll need them.) Each verse in the song has two parts – a spirited, wordy, first half and a mellower second. For example, at 0:27 (“spread out now Rosie …”) and at 0:52 (“you don’t have to call me …”). At the end of that second half, (1:05, “Rosie, you’re the one!”) Clemons plays a rising sax riff that … doesn’t resolve. It’s just a tease. Our ears are ready for something big and new, but instead we get another verse, some nonsense about what Dynamite and Little Gun are up to. But that rising riff is key to the song, because it keeps coming around. And whenever it delivers a chorus, as at 1:53, the sense of joy and release and power is inescapable.
But many of Bruce’s lyrics seem sort of goofy and embarrassing14. He goes on about highways running, calling his car a “machine,” and talking about all the dangerous guys and tough chicks on street corners that he knows. Bruce always wants you to know he loves you, baby, and that together you’ll make it, despite the long odds. And he’s forever asking you to put on that cute little dress of yours (you know the one), so he can sit you on the back of his motorbike and ride down suicide streets and whatnot. (He seems like the kind of guy who’d say “motorbike” – maybe he doesn’t.) I don’t know. He always sounds like a handsome horndog with a terrific rap. Maybe I’m jealous of him. But what do I know? One of my favorite songs has the lyrics “Anger, he smiles towering in shiny, metallic, purple armor.” I guess it’s all a matter of taste.
But in “Rosalita,” I’m able to put all my qualms aside. His lyrics are goofy as ever, but they’re so joyous, and tell such a great version of Romeo & Juliet that I’m even able to (basically) overlook his assertion that the only lover he’ll ever need is Rosie’s “soft, sweet little girl’s tongue.” Look, songs by men have forever demeaned their targets with patronizing terms like “little girl,” I get it. But even setting that aside, the line sounds more like a serial killer’s letter to the newspaper than romantic badinage. But who cares? I’ll put up with it, and Weak Knees Willy, too, and Sloppy Sue, and his machine that’s a dud, and mama in her chair, and all that jive, because I like the story.
But back to the music! We left off at the chorus (1:53), which is pure shout-along, frenzied fun. The backing harmonies are terrific, and it all passes much too soon, leaving us back in a verse with Jack the Rabbit, et al. (Okay, again, I understand that lyrics don’t have to make perfect sense, but how are they going to “skip some school” if they’re doing this at night?) But this verse does have a tremendous couple of lines: “Windows are for cheaters/ Chimneys for the poor/ Closets are for hangers/ Winners use the door.” Then after another rousing chorus, we hit the magnificent bridge.
But first! At 3:18 there’s another crazy tension-building section. The organ tootles up and up the scale, the bass joins in ratcheting the anticipation, everything is coming to a head … then (3:43) Clemons plays a sax riff that doesn’t exactly break the tension, but doesn’t relieve it, either. (By the way, through all this drummer Lopez is playing like a man possessed.) The band joins in the riff, and it almost seems like they’ve forgotten what song they were playing. But they come out of it and bring things down (4:17) so a simmering Bruce can start moving us – oh so gradually – to the story’s big payoff. Rosalita’s family hates, him15, fine, but he doesn’t care. And he really does sound sexy announcing his plans to “liberate you, confiscate you.” We’re approaching resolution … but first …
Before he gets us there, he leads the band in a sing-along of “papa says he knows I don’t have any money!” I mean, come on Bruce!! A little teasing is fine, but this is starting to get annoying! But then, finally, at 5:11, when The Boss reveals he’s gotten a big advance, the exuberance is palpable! The payoff seems worth all the buildup throughout the song, and I never feel manipulated. It feels satisfying, like a good short story or TV show, like the writer and I have bonded. The rest of the lyrics are denouement, and I don’t even bother myself with questions of how he’ll get Rosalita to the airport (they’re headed “down San Diego way16,” after all) with his car lost in a swamp. Or how she’ll know to pack a bag for what originally sounded like a simple evening on the town, playing pool and going to Woolworth’s, but now involves a cross-country trek. (At least now the skipping-school part makes sense.)
It wouldn’t be right to simply fade out or end the song un-bombastically, so The Boss throws in some “hey-hey-hey”s at 6:31, then Lopez leads everyone through a twenty second flourish until a simple, warbling organ is all that remains. It’s an exhausting song, like a good workout. When you watch live clips of Bruce playing the song, it’s a wonder to behold. They played this version on MTV all the time. There’s a version of a young, Mike Nesmith-looking Bruce playing in London. Folks have often told me that I haven’t caught Springsteen Fever because I’ve never seen him live. I haven’t been close enough, just like why people say I’ve never had poison ivy. If that’s the case, I’ll probably never fully get into The Boss. But I sure do have a reaction to “Rosalita.”
Beggars Banquet 1968, Decca Records. Producer: Jimmy Miller. In My Collection: CD, 2003.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL:Beggars Banquet is a record of three gorgeous diamonds set amongst seven smaller gems. It’s mostly acoustic blues, with Keith Richards giving a masterclass on guitar. Mick Jagger’s vocals stand out, as he yelps and seethes, but also puts on other voices to sell each song completely. Even stronger than Mick’s voice are his lyrics. He’s a deeper guy than his decades-long persona would indicate. And let’s not forget drummer Charlie Watts, who always manages to liven up even the most straightforward numbers.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20
The dearly departed exist in our minds, where they are fixed forever. My dad died two years ago and I think of him regularly. In my mind, he remains about thirty-three years old, making his family laugh, fixing anything that breaks, working on cars, and getting ready for hunting season. There was so much more to him, and he lived for 45 more years, but most thoughts that pop up are of him as a young father. I generally only consider his many other attributes when my own kids ask me questions, and he becomes a character in one of my answers. I’ll say, “I totally forgot about this, but …” and then share a little tidbit.
Even those still with us are subject to this compressed perspective. My 80-year-old mother continues to grow and change, but in my mind she’s stuck as the young auburn-haired mom, baking cakes, running the PTA, taking us to the pool, and watching The Guiding Light.
Similarly, we tend to remember historical figures and artists for small parts of their lives and their work. As we approach 2021, it’s very easy to go online and dive into the details about everyone, so it may seem useless to remember more than The Big Stuff. But I think it’s worth knowing that Thomas Edison didn’t just invent the lightbulb. Nina Simone did a lot more than Little Girl Blue.
And if we remember The Rolling Stones merely as the guys that played “Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” or “Miss You” and “Start Me Up,” or released 16 number-one hits in the US and UK, recorded 25 (or thereabouts) albums over 58 years, and up until the pandemic of 2020 were annually among the highest-grossing live acts in the world … well, if you only think of those things, you may overlook Beggars Banquet.
Beggars Banquet is a subdued, acoustic blues album with a few startling spikes of power, grit and even whimsy. It starts off with a number that is among the band’s most-popular, and that sounds like nothing else on the album. Or anywhere else.
“Sympathy for the Devil” is a straight-up, no-questions-asked classic. It starts perfectly, with conga drums, by guest Rocky Dijon. Together with the yelps and background laughter, it sounds rather sinister. Initially, Mick Jagger’s vocals, on top of longtime side man Nicky Hopkins’ piano chords, sound restrained and, well, refined. When Keith Richards’ beautifully sloppy bass line17 begins halfway through the first verse, about 0:37, the song really kicks into high gear. Jagger gradually becomes more menacing with each verse. Not much changes in the song, except for the intensity, which continually ratchets up. The lyrics of the song are really brilliant. On first pass, they’re a rundown of Satan’s deeds through history18, the sort of thing that my 14-year-old self thought was really cool. But the last verse makes the real point of the song clear: “Just as every cop is a criminal/ And all the sinners saints …” Jagger’s saying that “Satan” is in all of us, we all have the capacity for both good and evil. If we don’t have a little respect for that evil residing in ourselves, we’ll see this shit happening forever19.
Anyway, the song is fucking amazing. Keith on bass is always terrific, his guitar solo, beginning at 4:48, is a classic, and the “hoo-hoo” backing vocals are catchy as Covid. (Sorry.) The song’s so good that I even liked it when World Party (basically) re-did it in 1990 as a song called “Way Down Now.”
The Stones explore a different, sadder dark territory on the acoustic blues of “No Expectations.” Mick’s voice is in fine form on a hangdog song about a breakup. Original Stone Brian Jones plays acoustic slide, on what Jagger would later say was his last real contribution to the band. (He’d be excused from the band a year later and drown within days at age 27.) They lighten the mood considerably on the near-parody “Dear Doctor.” I always love hearing Keith sing, and his harmonies here are fun, drawling alongside Mick. It’s a jokey song about a hick who’s left at the altar.
Beggars Banquet maintains its full-on, acoustic blues direction on the swampy “Parachute Woman,” a double-entendre-laden ode to Mick’s horniness. I really like Charlie Watts’ drumming on this one. It’s simple, but he throws in more stuff than a slight, three-chord blues number would normally have. His creativity is also on display on the strange, cool “Jigsaw Puzzle.”
It’s a rambling, dreamy, Bob Dylan-ish number that gives us the amusing imagery of the posh, sophisticated Mick Jagger on the floor engaging in the pedestrian humdrummery of completing a jigsaw puzzle. (I don’t know why he wants to complete it “before it rains anymore,” as jigsaw puzzles are known to be a delightful rainy-day activity.) This is one of my favorite Bill Wyman bass lines, as he travels up the neck, hiccuping alongside Keith’s terrific slide guitar. It’s not perfect, as Brian Jones nearly ruins the song with a high-pitched, whiny mellotron, and it could’ve been shortened by 90 seconds, but I like it.
If you want a perfect track, along with “Sympathy for the Devil,” Beggars Banquet presents to you the incomparable “Street Fighting Man.”
It’s got one of the strongest acoustic guitar openings of any rock song. It’s a declaration, immediately taken up by Watts’ bass drum. Mick’s voice impersonates a wailing siren, dismayed at the fact that the street fighting happening in ’68 isn’t happening in London. He does, however, offer to kill the king – which must have been pretty shocking in 1968 UK, the lack of a king notwithstanding. The song struck a chord with me again this past summer, as I drove my kids to rallies and protests where – thankfully – no street fighting occurred while they participated. (Like their dad, neither of them is a street fighter.) The song has a driving energy, and the sitar behind Mick provides a sense of dread. I like Bill Wyman’s descending bass line after the chorus, but it’s Keith’s acoustic and Mick’s vocals that make the song.
Beggars Banquet is three brilliant diamonds surrounded by seven smaller gems. And the third diamond, after “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man,” is “Salt of the Earth.”
It’s a touching ode to the working class, and as a childhood member of that class, I’ve always connected with it. I absolutely love Keith’s warbly singing voice, and he sings the first verse with gusto. He then supplies harmony vocals throughout, and they sound great. Charlie Watts has several rumbling fills, after entering about 1:20. The band’s always loved gospel music, and the Watts Street Gospel Choir beautifully joins in at 2:35. Then they help turn it into a stomping Ray Charles number after 3:50. The song’s a brilliant, sentimental anthem that turns into an uplifting celebration. Mick and Keith sang it on stage after 9/11, at the Concert for New York City. There aren’t too many better album-closers.
The entire album really shows off Keith’s acoustic guitar playing. He’s never been a flashy, guitar-hero type guitarist, but he’s always creative. His Glimmer Twin, Mick, is also on fire, both as lyricist and singer. There’s a lot to remember when we think of The Rolling Stones. Let’s not forget Beggars Banquet.
“The Tears of a Clown,” from the 1967 Smokey Robinson and The Miracles album Make it Happen. Released as a single in 1970. Sad lyrics in a happy melody create a perfect pop song.
(4 minute read)
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
Clowns got a bum rap in American culture over the past 50 years. When I was a kid, in the 70s, they were happy icons of childhood mirth and wholesome good times. In addition to being the best part of any circus, they sold fast food, breakfast cereal, and household cleaners (!?), and had TV shows. A friendly clown even came to my elementary school to teach us kids about being safe around strangers. He told us if we were ever kidnapped we should make ourselves vomit by sticking a finger20 down our throat so the kidnapper would toss us, barf-covered, out of the car21.
By the early 90s, clowns were viewed in a different light. Maybe it was Stephen King, maybe it was Bob Goldthwait, maybe it was The Simpsons. Maybe ICP? Or maybe it was the fact that folks finally spoke out to say they were pretty creepy all along. Suddenly, clowns were not so cheery. But despite its previous history as an icon of fun, the clown had never been positively portrayed in popular music. In songs, clowns were almost always contemptible or malevolent or pitiable.
Motown’s famed “Funk Brothers” played the backing music. They were a rotating cast of musicians who played on thousands of songs, so it’s unclear who played on this one. The upbeat melody starts with flutes and a brilliant counter-melody on bassoon. It gives way to the main bass line in a few seconds. The pumping, uplifting sound, with driving drums, is accompanied by a blurting trombone that keeps it sounding circusy. The music was written by Stevie Wonder and his producer, Hank Crosby. Wonder couldn’t think of lyrics, so he gave the song to Robinson. Smokey had the genius idea to write lyrics that go against the song’s happy sound, but retain a circus theme.
Smokey’s voice is smooth as ever, and The Miracles’ harmonies are brilliant. At 0:37, and throughout the song, when Robinson sings “I’m sad,” and The Miracles repeat it while drum fills ricochet around them, it’s about the best 15 seconds of sound ever put to record. Then a brief rising scale (“there’s some sad things known to man …”) resolves in the title line, which somehow sounds even better! When he softly sings “the tears of a clown/ when there’s no one around,” and that flute/bassoon riff enters, the juxtaposition of words and sounds always gets me right in the feels. I could listen to this song every day.
The lyrics are terrific, and the bridge cleverly refers to the tragic Italian opera Pagliacci (“Clowns”), about a clown who discovers his wife is having an affair23. (“Just like Pagliacci did/ I try to keep my feelings hid.”) I’ve always been impressed that a pop song referenced an opera, or any stage production other than Romeo & Juliet. Then again, the first million-selling recording ever was Enrico Caruso’s 1903 recording of “Vest la Giubba,” from Pagliacci, so Robinson probably heard it a lot growing up.
As a fan of 70s/80s music, I must point out the great cover of the song by The English Beat, who nicely folded the song into their ska-based musical approach. But as good as that version is, nothing comes close to Smokey’s original. It’s got the sound, the lyrics, the style … it’s got everything.
Mermaid Avenue 1998, Elektra Records. Producers: Billy Bragg, Grant Showbiz & Wilco. In My Collection: CD, 1998.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL:Mermaid Avenue is a record whose sum may be greater than its parts, which is really saying something considering its parts are Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg and Wilco. Bragg and head Wilco man Jeff Tweedy penned classic Americana tunes for Guthrie’s lost lyrics, and the result is a treasure. From sad, lonesome cowboy songs to kids tunes and silly love songs, the amalgam works on all levels. Bragg and Wilco wisely allow the lyrics to shine through melodies.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 40.
Nearly guaranteed to be the lousiest of the lousy-on-paper ideas in popular music are those of the “posthumous release” variety. As a huge fan of both Jimi Hendrix (an artist with more than 80 albums released by various ghouls since his death in 1970) and The Beatles (who released this song in 1995), I’m aware of the spotty nature of such endeavors.
The idea of a posthumous release seems even lousier when it’s attenuated to a degree that no longer involves actual recordings, or even complete songs of an artist. To compound the perceived lousiness one could take the fragments from an artist dead thirty years, who wrote songs in a genre that’s waned in popularity in the interim, and give those fragments to other unpopular artists to complete and record.
This is the (admittedly un-generous) story of Mermaid Avenue, a brilliant record of Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music and performed by Billy Bragg and Wilco. Guthrie is a folk icon who penned my choice for US National Anthem, “This Land is Your Land.” Bragg is a UK punk troubadour/ provocateur whose excellent songs were largely overlooked in the US. Wilco is … well, Wilco; basically an alternativecountry-rock band led by Jeff Tweedy that blurs musical lines and has a (dare I say?) Deadheadish cult following.
It’s a 15-song album, so I’ll quickly dispatch with the particulars. Upon his death in 196724, Guthrie had left behind thousands of lyrics with no music. His daughter, Nora, thought some should be set to updated musical styles so they could be heard by a new generation of music fans, so she contacted Billy Bragg. He got Wilco onboard, and they wrote some music – some songs together, and some separately. Thus Mermaid Avenue, named after a street near Coney Island where Guthrie once lived, was born.
“Walt Whitman’s Niece,” kicks off the record, a bouncy tune from Bragg. It’s perfect for Guthrie’s vaguely naughty, shaggy-dog story about two men following a pair of women up some stairs, and the book of poetry they found. Apparently.
The song sets a simple blueprint for Mermaid Avenue. If you have lyrics from one of America’s best-loved songwriters you’re not going to obscure them with a bunch of complex musical ideas or blazing feats of instrumental virtuosity. Bragg and Tweedy give the lyrics lovely melodies to follow and set them within arresting and emotional musical arrangements. They’re the kind of songs you hear once, then find yourself humming the rest of the day.
For example, “California Stars,” penned by Jeff Tweedy and his late bandmate Jay Bennett.
It’s a beautiful, country-western ode to both love and home. Tweedy’s voice isn’t strong or perfect, but it’s certainly full of feeling and charm. In fact, one thing that makes the record so good is that neither Tweedy nor Bragg have a particularly exceptional vocal instrument. But they imbue the lyrics with warmth and character that resonates. In “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” Bragg exemplifies this notion, singing “ain’t nobody that can sing like me” in a voice that isn’t great, but carries great weight.
Natalie Merchant, of 10,000 Maniacs, sings harmony on that song, and takes lead on “Birds and Ships,” a song about longing that I’m not wild about. (I’m not too keen on her voice.) But “Hoodoo Voodoo” is a fun one! It’s a nonsense kids’ song, but Tweedy and Wilco give it their all, with clanks and boings and an energy that conjures images of my kids dancing around the room when they were little. Bragg and Wilco collaborated on that one, and also on “She Came Along to Me.”
It’s another jaunty number, sung by Bragg, with a nice slide guitar solo and some cool-sounding harmonica throughout. It’s one of my favorite songs on Mermaid Avenue due to Guthrie’s brilliant lyrics. It starts off as a tribute to his woman, to all women, and to the differences that make couples work. Then it takes that thought to the logical conclusion of a blending of humanity that makes physical differences disappear. Then it offers hope that “maybe we’ll have all the fascists out of the way by then.” It’s a clever, yet powerful, song, especially given the recent years in America. I’m sure we’re farther away than he thought we’d be by 2020, but then again ten thousand years is a long, long time.
“I Guess I Planted” breaks things up with a jazzy, bouncy beat and a dynamic melody. It’s practically a show tune.
As with “She Came Along to Me,” the lyrics start in one place and take you somewhere else. This time it’s about how a song starts as a seed of an idea, then becomes stronger when it’s put together with other songs. This leads into a terrific sing-along chorus about the Labor Movement, and what it’s done for everyone. There’s cool organ and a bit of lead guitar riffing throughout from Tweedy. It’s a great song, probably my favorite on the record.
Another beautiful sad number from Tweedy and Wilco, “One by One” flows like a wistful river, recounting a lost love. It’s the type of song never to listen to when you’re heartbroken. Or maybe it’s the best type. “Eisler on the Go” is a protest song from Bragg about HUAC victim Hahns Eisler, but I find it a bit too sleepy to connect with it.
The album closer “The Unwelcome Guest” is an instant classic.
It’s a first-person account of a mid-century American Robin Hood, a cowboy with a trusty horse, Black Bess. It may be the perfect blending of Guthrie, Bragg and Tweedy. The lyrics are deceptively simple. They have a moral center of The Common Good, but the narrator is doubtful of his actions. Yet he’s also sure they’ll continue after he’s gone – which is both hopeful (“My guns and my saddle/ Will always be filled/ By unwelcome travelers/ And other brave men/ And they’ll take the money/ And spread it out equal/ Just like the Bible/ And the prophets suggest”) and depressing (“But the men that go riding/ To help these poor workers/ The rich will cut down/ Like an unwelcome guest.”) Bragg’s unadorned voice is perfect for the character, and Tweedy’s thin harmony vocals provide a beautiful, mournful counterpoint.
Mermaid Avenue was a terrific idea, well-executed. Afterwards came Mermaid Avenue Vol. II and a box set with outtakes, Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions. Doubters, like me, were wrong. So go out and try to make your crazy creative ideas work. They might turn out better than you’d think!
He goes on to neatly make a case for why it is an important effort nonetheless. I, however, have deftly trimmed his complex, multi-part essay down to a snippet of a sentence so as to make it appear that he thinks the entire enterprise is bullshit.
Not to say the song is crap.
Short for “popular,” after all.
Although I won’t take on any dares to prove it. I just have never really had it.
Granted, I only know a few of his songs.
It’s worth noting, I think, that in 1973 “playing in a rock and roll band” was a lot shadier than it is now. I mean, parents back then weren’t signing their kids up for cute Rock Band classes, like nowadays. They were sending them to trombone lessons and claiming that electrified music wasn’t real music. Believe me, I know.
The band was recording the song when Robert F. Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. Jagger immediately changed the lyrics from “I shouted out who killed Kennedy” to “… the Kennedys.
Okay, I don’t want this to drag on and on, but let me say that I think Mick’s lyrics are generally WILDLY underestimated by many. He is a smart guy who wrote some pretty thoughtful lyrics. I mean, he uses the word “politesse” (correctly) in this song!
“The middle finger, the longest finger!” he enthusiastically told us.
What I realize as an adult is that he should’ve told the kids how to report the abuse in their own homes, as it’s always been far more rampant than kidnappings!
I’m sure many of you immediately thought of Blue Velvet, so here you go.