Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Song A Day: Pete Holly & the Looks, "Look Out Below"

JUNE 21, 2017




As a young person growing up in Ronald Reagan’s America, the idea of going to fight some stupid imperialist war was certainly a concern. The Vietnam War was still a recent memory for people of my generation, and when I had to register for the draft at age 18, I was pissed off.

Plenty of us worried about this stuff. At what point would our atomic bombing of Japan come home to roost? How long would it take before our nationalism got someone angry enough at America to make us live through the unthinkable?

Of course, the ensuing three and a half decades have been more about America dying from a thousand paper cuts rather than one A-bomb, and we’ve done little in the last few months to make ourselves any safer.

This means it’s time, again, for Pete Holly & the Looks, a trio from Boise, Idaho that cut a three-song 7” EP in 1981 which featured “Look Out Below,” a simple song of paranoia and worry about the bomb. The band played this 60s-styled hard-rock song with punk rock abandon. Greg Shaw’s BOMP label released the EP in 1981, and also included “Look Out Below” on a compilation called Battle of the Garages, Vol. 1 that same year on his other label, Voxx.

To me, this was everything punk rock could be: immediate, topical, musical, raw, morbidly funny, scared, determined, tuneful. Those of us who knew it loved it.

Pete Holly, a true outsider, continued to record but never reached stardom or anything like it. He died in Idaho in 2010.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Song A Day: Michaelangelo, "Son (We've Kept the Room Just the Way You Left It)"

JUNE 20, 2017




Here’s one of the more obscure major label records you’ll find. Columbia issued this, the only album by Michaelangelo, with little fanfare. And little fanfare it received in turn from the world. But despite its lack of success, One Voice Many was remarkable in several ways.

First off, this four-piece New York group was headed by a lithe brunette named Angel Peterson who played electric autoharp, wrote songs, and sang them. Guitarist/singer Steve Bohn, bassist Robert Gorman, and drummer Michael Hackett provided sensitive support for the softer songs and could rock the house too. And had major league hair.

The group’s material tended toward folk-rock and pop-rock. At its best it sounded like nothing else, held together by the open, jangling, baroque-via-NYC sound of the autoharp. Both singers were talented, and the whole band was tight.

Another interesting thing about One Voice Many is that it was among the first, if not the first, major label rock album to be produced by a woman.

Rachel Elkind-Tourre, an electronic composer and instrumentalist, had produced Wendy (nee Walter) Carlos’ hit Switched-on Bach, and in fact had conceived the phenomenally successful project. She also later co-wrote incidental music for The Shining. Ms. Elkind-Tourre met the band in New York City, got the gig, and did a wonderful job on One Voice Many.

Sadly, despite a strong visual image, good playing, and fine songs, Michaelangelo was doomed by things it couldn’t control—a typical story for bands that never quite "make it." Years later, Elkind-Tourre stated that some kind of feud between her and Columbia Records boss Clive Davis meant that the company refused to provide promotional muscle to the Michaelangelo album. The dispirited band soon broke up.

My favorite track on the album is “Son,” a rocker that pretty much sums up the unbridgeable problems between some parents and some kids during the late 60s and early 70s. I won’t tell you more; Peterson’s perceptive, heartbreaking lyrics and Bohn's desperate vocal pretty much cover it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Song A Day: Earl-Jean, "Randy"

JUNE 19, 2017



RELEASED 1964 ON 7” 45

At age 19, Earl-Jean McCrea joined a new version of The Cookies, a popular East Coast “girl group,” in 1961. Several years before, her older sister had been a founding member of the outfit, which eventually morphed into Ray Charles’ Raelettes.

Over the next couple of years, the reconstituted (reheated?) Cookies enjoyed two big hits—“Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby)” and “Chains”—and also sang backup on chart numbers by Carole King, Little Eva, and Neil Sedaka.

From 1962 through 1964, the trio released five singles, with nearly all of the songs on both sides written and produced by King and her husband, Gerry Goffin. The two songwriters also owned the label, Dimension, which issued the Cookies’ 45s.

As was the custom for many 1960s girl groups, including the Orlons and the Jaynetts, the Cookies also recorded songs that were issued under different group names.

Earl-Jean, or “Jeanie,” sang lead on most Cookies records. Her clear voice somehow seemed both shy and sassy at the same time. Married, with a child, and in a popular singing group, her life must have seemed pretty good to those around her.

But late in 1963, Earl-Jean became pregnant—with Gerry Goffin’s child.

In spite of this heartbreaking situation, Goffin and King remained married, and the two continued working with the Cookies. In fact, Earl-Jean even released a solo single, in early 1964, “I’m Into Something Good,” that the two wrote and produced.

Yet another catchy concoction, it was a hit, reaching #38 on the Billboard chart. Soon after, however, Herman’s Hermits, perhaps the least weighty of the big “British Invasion” groups, took their own version to #14.

It was a sign of the times. Earl-Jean’s final single emerged in October, by which time the New York girl groups had been eclipsed in popularity by the British groups who’d learned so much from them.

Despite being a major hit in Utah, of all places, “Randy” barely scraped the lower ranges of the Cashbox chart, reaching #147 on October 17. It didn’t even trouble the Billboard survey.

This was really a shame, as “Randy,” yet another great King-Goffin composition, deserved to chart much higher.

It would have been enough for the song to have a pretty melody, a sweet arrangement featuring hand claps, pleasant backing vocals, and a typically fine lead vocal. But “Randy” also featured an outstanding “bridge” section. No other pop songwriters of the time, not even Lennon and McCartney, would have taken a song in the key of D and added a middle section that started in A flat and eventually, effortlessly, resolved back to the verse key. It’s simply genius songwriting.

While “Randy” wasn’t a hit, it’s still there for us to hear. It’s remarkable for a number of reasons, one of them being the fact that Carole King was able to continue to write songs, with her husband, for a woman that he’d gotten pregnant.

Soon after, Earl-Jean left the music business, apparently without regret, and dedicated herself to her family.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Song A Day: Patsy Cline, "Walkin' After Midnight"

JUNE 18, 2017




Patsy Cline is a legendary artist who sits in the pantheon of great singers. She could do it all—country, honky-tonk, rockabilly, pop, standards, jazz and blues—in her own inimitable style. Her 1963 death in a plane crash ended a career that would likely have produced further hits and an interesting period of growth as music changed later in the decade.

She is remembered mostly for the hits she cut in the early 1960s, in which producer Owen Bradley set her plaintive vocals of pop-country songs with middle-of-the-road string arrangements in an effort to make her music more palatable to the masses.

This it did, but Bradley’s “countrypolitan” style also rendered her work far less immediate, in my opinion. While later hits like “She’s Got You,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” and “Faded Love” are superb songs and among Cline’s great vocal performances, they’re also formulaic and pretty much sound alike.

I’d like to revisit her first hit record, 1957’s “Walking After Midnight.” This version, which reached #12 on Billboard‘s pop chart and #2 on its country chart, is not remembered as it should be. This is largely because a far less interesting 1961 re-cut of the song is the version available for the last 50 years on the Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits album.

Patsy Cline was just 14 years old when she dropped out of high school. In 1947 she began singing, working her way up to daily radio programs then signing with the small Four Star record label. She always believed herself to be a country singer, although early tracks like “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray” make it clear that she was equally adept at nightclub jazz.

By 1956, she had even reached the stage of the Grand Ole Opry—but enjoyed no hits. This changed, however, when she sang a new recording, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” in early 1957 on Arthur Godfrey’s television show. Cline, dressed in a fancy gown rather than her traditional cowgirl outfit, received rapturous applause.

Decca Records, which had an arrangement with Four Star, rush-released “Walkin’ After Midnight” and promoted it heavily. The song broke out immediately in the east and the south. At age 25, Patsy Cline was a star, her first hit a fusion of full-throated vocals, a pop-styled torch song, and an appealing, homespun country track.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Song A Day: Nick Lowe with Rockpile, "They Called it Rock"

JUNE 17, 2017




Bassist/singer/producer Nick Lowe had released two solo singles and one extended play 45 under his own name by the end of 1977, making him among the earliest proponents of the so-called British “new wave.” He was also a known quantity behind the desk, producing other up-and-comers like The Damned, Graham Parker, and Elvis Costello.

His first solo single of 1978 was “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” a sonic and lyrical nod to the David Bowie song “Breaking Glass” which the Thin White Duke had put out the previous year. (Bowie’s Low album, which included “Breaking Glass,” led Lowe to issue an EP jokingly called Bowi.)

On the flip side of the “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” 45 was “They Called it Rock,” a hot chunk of rocking, rootsy power pop with funny lyrics about a band’s quick rise to the top of the charts and even quicker skid into obscurity. It was a tale that the sardonic Lowe, already a ten-year-veteran of the pop scene, could sing from personal experience.

Lowe’s mates on the song were the other members of the loose foursome known as Rockpile: guitarists Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams. (The latter would, in a few years, join Dire Straits.) Rockpile released one album under its own name and, as a group, played on each other’s “solo” projects through the early 1980s.

Most of Lowe’s greatest material had a sense of humor about itself, about pop, and about celebrity. “They Called it Rock” is no exception.

Well they went and cut a record, the record hit the chart
'cause someone in the newspaper said that it was art

…is how the fable begins. Lowe spends the chorus reciting the names of various major record labels, pleading for a chance. Later, after the band had reached the top,

They cut another record, it never was a hit
'cause someone in the newspaper said it was shit.

And it gets worse from there.

Lowe himself would become, in America, something of a “one-hit wonder” himself with the release of the impossibly catchy “Cruel to Be Kind” in 1979; it reached #12 on the Billboard charts and was his only top 40 single.