Friday, June 30, 2017

A Song A Day: George Harrison, "Your Love is Forever"

JUNE 30, 2017




Few people expected George Harrison to be the most immediately successful solo Beatle, but his 1970 All Things Must Pass triple album and #1 single “My Sweet Lord” catapulted The Quiet One into a position of solo super-stardom. He spent the next several years rolling downhill creatively and commercially.

Nothing Harrison did after ATMP had quite the same commercial appeal, and few would argue that his mid-70s solo material was his best work. By 1976, it was no longer guaranteed that his singles or albums would be popular on radio or in the stores.

He appeared lost during the middle of the decade, struggling with drugs and drink and finally splitting from Patti Boyd. He often looked haggard and physically wasted.

Things could only get better, and they did. In 1974, when Apple Records finally capitulated, Harrison helped set up Dark Horse Records to issue his work and that of other acts he liked. (A&M Records distributed the work through 1976, at which point Warner Brothers took over.) While in Los Angeles, Harrison met Olivia Arias, a secretary at the label, and the two eventually began a relationship.

The two married in 1978, a month after their child Dhani was born. Harrison often credited Olivia for helping pull him from the mire and giving him something to live for. He soon realized that he liked life on his quiet estate—where he could garden, hang out, and play guitar—more than the rock and roll business.

The album George Harrison, released in 1979, reflected this new-found serenity. The songs radiated optimism, love, patience, and even humor. A long stay in Hawaii informed his sense of connection to the earth, and recording the album at his Friar Park estate contributed to the overwhelming calm and good spirit.

With the help of experienced musical friends like Willie Weeks, Andy Newmark, Gary Wright, Steve Winwood, and producer Ted Templeman, Harrison whipped up a slightly stoned late-70s hummus of yacht rock, mellow psychedelia, and breezy pop. He summoned his Beatles past with a new take on an old ‘White Album’ outtake, “Not Guilty,” and with “Here Comes the Moon,” a shimmering, trippy sort-of-sequel to you-know-what.

He also enjoyed a moderate hit single with the charming, inspiring “Blow Away.” “Faster” (his ode to Formula I race driver Niki Lauda) and “Love Comes to Everyone” (featuring an opening guitar cameo from Eric Clapton) serve as excellent lite-rock.

On “Your Love is Forever,” Harrison used an open guitar tuning, which allowed him greater melodic flexibility, and a Roland guitar effect—possibly the Space Echo—which constructed a luscious sound on what sounds like a Fender 12-string electric guitar (anyone know for sure?). Matching this lush, reverberating tone, Harrison wrote equally words and melody.

                Sublime is the summertime, warm and lazy…
                These are perfect days, like Heaven’s about here.
                But unlike summer came and went—your love is forever…
                The only lover worth it all, your love is forever.

“Your Love is Forever” works as a love song to a person as well as to a higher power. George could be singing about Olivia, or Dhani, but he could also be singing about God. It doesn’t matter. Like the best of all music, it works on different levels. The sound, the lyrics, and the melody combine into a sort of prayer, an acknowledgement of the passing of time and our place in it.

George Harrison combined his own expressive gift with a feel for several complementary music traditions. From a diverse palette came music that felt like a giant cosmic heartbeat and looked like a rainbow.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Song A Day: The Mighty Lemon Drops, "My Biggest Thrill"

JUNE 29, 2017




The mid-80s British rock scene went in all directions. One group I really liked, at least for their first few records, was The Mighty Lemon Drops. They fused a tough, aggressive rhythmic attack with clear, jangly guitar and vocals that betrayed no American influence.

The Mighty Lemon Drops came from Wolverhampton, in the quite unfashionable west midlands of England. They first caught attention when one of their songs was released on a New Musical Express cassette compilation called “C86”; this tape helped create a sound and an ethos for stripped-down, energetic DIY rock from Britain.

In these pre-Internet days, the cassette’s impact was huge on a disconnected yet extremely promising indie guitar pop scene. Other “C86” bands of note included McCarthy, Primal Scream, Fuzzbox, the Soup Dragons, and the Pastels.

The Drops’ first single, “Like an Angel,” was an indie chart hit and led to an album deal. Their first LP, Happy Head, contained “My Biggest Thrill,” which for my money is their finest moment. Paul Marsh’s vocals tell a clear story despite their detached air, and Dave Newton’s vintage-yet-up-to-the-moment guitars are gut-punching as well as stratospheric. 

While they never got past the middle 60s on the British singles charts, the Mighty Lemon Drops did enjoy success on both sides of the pond and lasted long enough to record several albums. 

Listen and watch a perhaps self-consciously revivalist video.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Song A Day: Children of the Day, "New Life"

JUNE 28, 2017



I am not a Christian, but I am interested in high-quality Christian pop and rock, mostly from the “Jesus Music” movement of the late 60s and early 70s. Some of this music is so good that its very existence stands as its strongest argument.

One fine LP is the debut by the Children of the Day, a two-woman, two-man aggregation from California affiliated with Chuck Smith’s Calvary Church in Costa Mesa.

Sisters Marsha and Wendy Carter, who played guitar, were joined by bassist Russ Stevens and pianist/guitarist Peter Jacobs. All but Stevens composed and all four sang, creating rich baroque harmonies in service of some lovely post-60s pop songs.

The first track on their first album, Come to the Waters, is “New Life,” a song addressed to one who has just accepted Christ. It’s hopeful, happy, youthful, loving…and super-catchy. Peter Jacobs wrote a magnificent song and the quartet created an outstanding four-part vocal line.

The concept and execution are so solid that a friend of mine referred to this song as “Godfinger.” I get it—the block harmonies and piano are absolutely in the Beatles tradition—but it’s also something else. There’s a strong sense of adult contemporary pop, a conservative Southern California feel that echoes fellow SoCal denizens The Carpenters.

Very rarely did the group actually “rock.” They did a Buffalo Springfield-ish country-rock thing or two, but most of Come to the Waters aims more for Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney.

The group received early notoriety for Marsha Carter’s “For Those Tears I Died,” a heartfelt prayer which Pat Boone recorded. Kathryn Kullman invited the quartet to sing it on her syndicated TV show, in fact, and Children of the Day became stars of the new Jesus Music scene, which orbited around Chuck Smith and the Maranatha! record label. Marsha and Russ even married and started a family.

Their music was never as good as it was on the first album, unfortunately, and eventually Marsha Stevens realized that she was gay. When she came out of the closet, her marriage and the group ended; after this, she was never again accepted by the Christian music community.

Her website states that Children of the Day were asked to reunite to play at a Calvary Church reunion in 1999, but without Marsha. The other three members refused and were summarily dis-invited from performing.

Today, Pete Jacobs commandeers several “oldies” ensembles in Southern California, while Marsha Stevens-Pino and her spouse Cindy Stevens-Pino have spent the last several decades ministering to LGBTQ Christians who feel left out of traditional churches. Russ Stevens and Wendy Carter have retired from public life.

This, then, is “New Life”—the music of committed young people fresh into their journey with Jesus. It’s inspiring, and it’s also great pop.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Song A Day: Herman's Hermits, "Museum"

JUNE 27, 2017




Herman’s Hermits were, for a while, nearly as big as the Beatles. You could argue that toothy young lead vocalist Peter “Herman” Noone was the most beloved figure of the British Invasion; he was cute and talented and cheeky.

From late 1964 through late 1966, the Hermits enjoyed 12 consecutive top 20 hits on the Billboard chart. All but two were top ten, seven landed in the top five, and two (“Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” and “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”) made number one.

In a way, the Hermits were trapped by those #1 hits; they were tabbed as old-fashioned, retrograde popsters, even though they also sung hit songs by Ray Davies, P.F. Sloan, and Graham Gouldman, all hip writers amid the pop cognoscenti.

In early 1967, they rebounded from a relative miss (“East West”) with the classic “There’s a Kind of Hush,” then made #18 with “Don’t Go Out in the Rain.” It was the summer of 1967, and everything had changed in pop music.

The next Herman’s Hermits single was among their finest, a cover of Donovan’s song “Museum.”
The lyrics both mocked and celebrated the louche lifestyle of Swinging London’s privileged, those with no job to frequent, the lazy rich who could keep their own hours.

I drink sweet wine for breakfast. I slept but an hour or so.

Part of the growth in vernacular songwriting in the 1960s was an increasing sense of self-awareness, a desire to share one’s view of the world. Never before had pop musicians sung so stingingly about their immediate surroundings. Like Ray Davies and the Beatles, Donovan was an A-lister in Swinging London even while slicing it up with a very sharp knife.

British record wizard Mickie Most produced both Donovan and Herman’s Hermits. He could never 
get a truly commercial version of “Museum” out of Donovan, but must have thought it was a great match for the Hermits.

By toning down the drums and omitting some of the lyrics, Most created an easy stroll that stressed the encounter between the singer and a female companion at London’s Natural History Museum.
Noone’s delivery of the lyrics was not nearly as “knowing” as Donovan’s; in fact he sounded a little surprised at what independence and money hath wrought on the rich kids.

There she stood in drag, just lookin’ cool in Astrakhan*
She looked so wiped out, she said I looked like Peter Pan.
Yawning in the sun, it’s like a child I run.

Noone goes on to chide to his young friend, “Don’t do it if you don’t want to/I wouldn’t do a thing like that.” Sweet, innocent Herman! This wasn’t exactly “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.”

When “Museum” debuted on the Billboard charts in late August, just before the kids went back to school, it performed admirably, shooting from #130 to #76 to #62 to #49 to #39 in its first five weeks. Looks like a hit, right?

Nope. The record immediately ground to a halt, stalling at #39 and dropping off the chart almost immediately. The Hermits’ career in America was essentially over; they never made the top 20 again.

What happened?

First, it’s critical to remember the Billboard Hot 100 chart measured sales, radio play, and jukebox play, not necessarily in that order. Cashbox, a sales-oriented weekly, had “Museum” climbing all the way to #21, a huge difference. Record World had it at #26. But on all the charts, the record was done by the end of September.

“Museum” simply stalled in the 20s in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, according to local radio station surveys. It reached only #19 in Los Angeles and received no noticeable airplay in the Bay Area, Detroit, or Houston. The song failed to go top 10 in any major market.

Some would say that the record failed because Herman’s Hermits just weren’t hip anymore, that their kind of pop fell out of fashion during the Summer of Love. But I wonder if what happened was that MGM simply didn’t promote “Museum” very hard.

I posit this because as “Museum” was stalling on the charts, MGM was pushing a new record, “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things,” by the Cowsills. This was the family band’s first record on the label, and MGM’s only other record on the charts.

It’s not hard to imagine someone at MGM deciding, for some reason, to pull advertising and promotion on the Hermits and throw it all behind the Cowsills—who if anything were lighter, less consequential, and less satisfying than Herman’s Hermits.

“The Rain, the Park, and Other Things” is a nice enough single, and it was a top five hit. Did MGM have a bigger “piece” of the Cowsills’ income because they didn’t have to license their records from Mickie Most? Maybe.

Record promotion/plugging/payola was a dirty business, and good records suffered for what appears to be, for those on the outside, no good reason. I believe that this was the case here. “Museum” is still excellent 50 years later, but if I were Peter Noone, I would have been pissed off.

*Astrakhan = a fur found in expensive coats.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Song A Day: The Hues Corporation, "Rock the Boat"

JUNE 26, 2017




Most of you have probably heard this record. It’s a classic of its era, indelible to those who enjoyed it at the time and still incendiary more than 40 years later. It also has one of the greatest videos ever.

Nearly as important, though, is that “Rock the Boat” was an early warning shot across the bow of popular culture: The new way is here.

The Hues Corporation was an African American vocal trio from Los Angeles. St. Clair Lee, Fleming Williams, and H. Ann Kelley paid their dues in SoCal clubs for several years before signing with RCA. The first Hues Corporation album, 1973’s Freedom for the Stallion, was cut with some of the finest studio musicians around, including Larry Carlton, Wilton Felder, Louie Shelton, Al Casey, and Hal Blaine.

The title track, a lovely slow jam written by Allen Toussaint, was a modest hit the next year, reaching #63 on the Billboard charts. “Freedom” had most of its radio action in smaller and mid-sized markets, never breaking through in the biggest cities.

“Rock the Boat,” written by the group’s manager, Wally Holmes, was also on the album. It has some great melodic moments and nice turns of phrase, but its lyrical pattern makes it tough to sing. Holmes’ use of sailing as a love metaphor was creative, though, and the old phrase “don’t rock the boat” made perfect sense.

The singing and arrangement elevate “Rock the Boat” to greatness. Fleming Williams’ lead vocal is graceful and tuneful, the group harmony coming out of the chorus is simply sublime, and arranger Tom Sellers’ Caribbean beat, which undergirds the song, made it sound unlike anything else at the time; it wasn’t soul, it wasn’t pop, it wasn’t rock, it wasn’t Latin, but it had elements of all them. It was essentially a precursor to Latin disco, but looser, funkier, more lyrical. The ecstatic fadeout remains exhilarating.

Nobody had considered releasing “Rock the Boat” as a 45 until, according to Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, RCA staff producer David Kershenbaum caught the Hues Corporation in a Sunset Strip club and was floored by how much the audience loved it when the group performed the song.

(Kershenbaum went on to become an enormously successful producer and executive at A&M, so this says something for his ears.)

The single was issued in February 1974 with little fanfare. Billboard magazine didn’t even review it. But once it was out, “Rock the Boat” was literally an instant smash. Not on the charts, or on the radio, but rather in the underground dance clubs and house parties of New York and Philadelphia. As a result of this exposure, the record leapt on to the Record World “looking ahead” chart, which tracked singles rating 100–150, by March.

This was the latest key indicator of a hot new trend: records breaking out first in dance clubs rather than the radio. “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae, another great record from around the same time, had first gotten attention in Florida clubs and parties; the record was made and issued by TK, a small company in Miami. And less than a year earlier, a minimal, rhythmically innovative West Indian record by Manu Dibango called “Soul Makossa” was “discovered” and given its first exposure in New York. It hit in the clubs then moved to radio.

A key point to note is that the underground dance scenes of the biggest cities (Miami, New York, Philly, Chicago, Detroit) served audiences usually omitted from the larger culture. Most fanatical dance cultures—disco, house, New Romantic, techno—have always been largely populated by the LGBTQ community, people of color, and their white/straight allies. That’s not something that the music magazines would or could publish back then, but it was and remains true.

In New York, David Mancuso’s “Love Saves the Day” underground dance parties, at a warehouse called The Loft, started in 1970. These bacchanalian events are regarded as ground zero of modern dance culture. DJs mixed all sorts of music in a funky, psychedelic flow for dancers who wanted a special experience that went all hours and didn’t necessarily involve drinking alcohol or waiting for celebrities to show up. You couldn’t get that kind of thing in a bar.

“Rock the Boat” had played its way through the dance clubs by May, but now the “outside world” was beginning to listen. It leapt into the top ten on several New York stations and had caught on in Boston and Los Angeles. Soon, record buyers in Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Detroit stepped up, and by the end of the month RCA had a completely unexpected hit. The company hadn’t promoted “Rock the Boat,” yet the song found its audience anyway.

On May 25, “Rock the Boat” hit the Billboard Hot 100 and RCA began to push the record hard, buying ads in the trade papers and lobbying with more radio stations to add it to their playlists. Soon it was a national smash, and by July 4 it had been certified gold, selling a million copies. By the next week, it had reached #1 in on all three charts—Billboard, Record World, and Cashbox.

Not only is “Rock the Boat” a great example of a left-field, pioneering musical sound, it’s also evidence that music, and the way it was heard, was changing. DJs in clubs could now give records exposure the way that DJs on the radio could, and the music business noticed. Soon would come 12-inch singles, promotion aimed mostly at club DJs, and a larger market for dance music.