Song of the Week – Stay Free, The Clash

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The Clash’s eponymous debut was released in the UK in 40 years ago, in April 1977. But it wasn’t released in the US until July 1979 – and that was in a modified version that replaced 5 of the original cuts with 6 different ones.

As a result, many here in the US (me included) heard their second album – Give ‘Em Enough Rope, released in November 1978 – before the more critically acclaimed The Clash. But as is often the case, the first album we are exposed to by a band becomes our lifelong favorite. Often criticized for its “sanitized” production by American Sandy Pearlman who had previously worked with Blue Oyster Cult, GEER sounded good to me then and still does today.

Today’s SotW is “Stay Free.”

When I first hear “Stay Free” back in ’78 I thought it might be a song about the childhood relationship between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. That was way off base, but you can’t blame me for heading in that direction since “Stay Free” is the Clash’s most Beatle-y song.

It turns out this Mick Jones song is actually about his childhood schoolmate, Robin Banks. They became lifelong friends after getting sent to the headmaster after having an argument in class over who was better, Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley. The headmaster was so spitting mad that his jacket lapel ended up with gob on it. That hilarious situation and their mutual disdain for authority figures bonded their friendship.

Mick wrote the tribute to his old buddy when Robin was locked up for bank robbery.

He covers their childhood:

We met when we were in school
Never took no shit from no one, we weren’t fools
The teacher says we’re dumb
We’re only having fun
We piss on everyone
In the classroom

The bank robbery and related incarceration:

I practiced daily in my room
You were down the crown planning your next move
Go on a nicking spree
Hit the wrong guy
Each of you get three
Years in Brixton

It ends with a poignant love letter:

‘Cause years have passed and things have changed
And I move anyway I want to go
I’ll never forget the feeling I got
When I heard that you’d got home
An’ I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cause I knew where you would be
An’ if you’re in the crown tonight
Have a drink on me
But go easy…step lightly…stay free

Then Jones rips into a guitar solo that captures the spirit of the young boys’ wilder days. It’s a beautiful thing!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Don’t You Grieve, Roy Harper

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Roy Harper has been a successful performer and recording artist for over 50 years but he is not nearly as well known to Americans as he is to his fellow countrymen in the UK. For instance, he earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the BBC and Hero Award from MOJO magazine.

His extensive discography contains plenty of terrific albums including one bona fide classic – Stormcock. If you haven’t heard it, you should. (Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page plays on it under the pseudonym S. Flavius Mercurius.)

Today’s SotW comes from his 1970 album Flat Baroque and Berserk. “Don’t You Grieve” is timely during this Easter weekend as it has Harper getting into the head of Judas Iscariot and justifying the kiss that locked his place in history for all time. After all, it was something he had to do.

I was the master’s best friend
He was the only man I knew
It’s been a tall harvest
And he turned us all on two
But my lips are sealed by history
And my tale I cannot tell
My name is Judas Iscariot
My home address is Hell

So baby don’t you grieve after me
No no no, don’t you grieve after me
So baby don’t you grieve after me
No no no, don’t you grieve after me

Baby you don’t grieve for me when I’m here
Don’t grieve for me when I’m gone

It was two hours gone midnight
When he called me to his side
He said, hey Jude, I need you boy
I need you to take a ride
I want you to tell those guys down town
My time’s almost due. But wait a minute
Jude don’t stick around
‘Cos no body’s gonna love you

Now you’ve got all the silver
But no forgiveness in your heart
And I’ve got 20 feet of rope
To end just where?
Your guessing game starts
I’ve got endless books to write you
But my tale I cannot tell
The only way you’re living is
If you’re living in the same Hell

The song is played and sung in a style reminiscent of very early Dylan – just guitar and nasally voice. Perhaps Dylan is the link back to Woody Guthrie, who’s “Sally Don’t You Grieve” must have influenced Harper.

Other trivia related to Harper? That’s him taking the vocals on Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar” from Wish You Were Here. Led Zeppelin III has a song called “Hat’s off to (Roy) Harper”, a tribute to their old friend and musical influence.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Gonzo & On the Sunny Side of the Street, James Booker

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If you’re a regular reader of the SotW you know that I consume a significant amount of print space exposing my readers to the buried treasures of rock music. I spend a considerable amount of my free time reading books and magazines and listening to music in order to uncover underappreciated artists and acts.

Now and then I’m blown away by someone that I’m unfamiliar with and can’t quite grasp how they eluded my consciousness for so long. That happened to me a few weeks ago when I caught a documentary on Netflix called Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker.

As it turns out, Booker was one of the greatest New Orleans style piano players ever to grace our planet. He could play classical (he loved Chopin), jazz, blues, R&B and rock – making it all his own. In MOJO magazine, journalist Jim Scheurich chronicled his diverse talent:

As at home in the church as he was amid New Orleans’ shore-leave Babylon of clubs and bars, the young Booker was also at ease with the classics as he was with R&B and pop. To Booker, it was all grist to the mill of an extraordinary musical mind, freewheeling spirit of playfulness and dazzling digital dexterity.

How in the world did I miss this guy? It just goes to show, “the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know.” (Aristotle)

Booker was a flamboyant character that played with everyone that’s anyone in 50s-70s rock and R&B — Little Richard, Ray Charles, Joe Tex, Aretha Franklin, John Mayall, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, Jerry Garcia, Maria Muldaur, and the Doobie Brothers among others.

Booker even gave piano lessons to a young Harry Connick Jr., as a favor to his district Attorney dad in exchange for legal help he provided.

Booker’s first charted release was the 1960 organ instrumental called “Gonzo.”

Legend has it the song was a favorite of Hunter S. Thompson and was the inspiration for calling his writing style “Gonzo Journalism.” Booker himself picked up the term from the name of the character Felice Orlandi played in the 1960 crime film The Pusher.

The recording that best exhibits Booker’s style is his take on the1930 jazz standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”

In the documentary Connick deconstructs the parts that Booker plays to demonstrate how complicated, challenging and creative his version is. An article written by Tim Penn gives this technical description of Booker’s playing style:

In terms of Piano Style, he was classically trained and had an incredible technique, using a lot of filigree decoration in the right hand — not in quite the same ‘ lazy rolling baroque’ N.O. style as Dr. John. However it was his left hand style that sort of set him apart. He used a sort of syncopated stride style a lot — but instead of doing a root note jump to chord, fifth jump, root jump, fifth jump style, he would either:

1) Break the root note octave quite heavily into 2 notes (from the thumb down to the little finger) i.e. ba-doom jump chord ba-doom jump chord — best exemplified on say his version of On the Sunny Side of the Street. A lot of piano players will break the root octaves a bit when doing a stride piano style, mainly out of laziness etc. (it seems to make accuracy a bit easier) — but Booker’s break was really pronounced and heavy.

OR

2) Uses a double bounce on the root and jump chord like so dum-dum (root or fifth) da-da (top chord) dum-dum (root) da-da. (top-chord) (Like doing a stride piano — in a 16ths shuffle rhythm). This style was his real trademark and he used it on his versions of Junco Partner and Goodnight Irene. Of course this style would possibly not transfer very well to a band situation!!

Booker was an unbelievably colorful character. The documentary is filled with anecdotes about how he lost his eye, his bouts with addiction and mental illness, his paranoia, and many others. I don’t want to be a “spoiler” so you have to see the movie for yourself (or research him online).

Sadly, Booker’s life ended at the young age of 43 in 1983. Even his death had an interesting and tragic angle to it. Apparently some unknown person put him in a taxi cab and sent him off to New Orleans’ Charity Hospital. He died, sitting in a wheelchair in the ER, while waiting to be seen.

But don’t let that be the final word. Watch Bayou Maharajah and discover the full story of this obscure genius.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Suzette, Foster & Lloyd

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Back in 1983 I was living in Boston and my girlfriend (now wife) was working for an ad agency as a media planner. Her position had the side benefit of receiving invitations to lots of cool events and I was lucky to be her “plus 1.”

That summer WBOS surprised the people of Boston by converting from an adult rock station to a country music format. (In the early 80s Boston was NOT a hotbed for country music.) They celebrated the switch with a party at the Aquarium that included live music by some of the top country music acts of the day. We were invited.

I remember Dwight Yoakam on stage performing for an audience of one – me. Later Reba McEntire took the stage as men in women in business suits munched on shrimp and drank cocktails, oblivious to her presence. I wish I could remember the rest of the acts that were there that evening.

Watching these people perform up close gave me an appreciation for their talent and caused me to pay more attention to country music for a few years. That included acts like Randy Travis, Ricky Scaggs and Rodney Crowell.

Another, lesser known group I followed was Foster & Lloyd. Today’s SotW is “Suzette” from their 1989 album Faster & Llouder.

Radney Foster & Bill Lloyd’s style of music is a country tinged version of power pop — a close cousin to the music of Marshall Crenshaw who makes significant contributions as a guest on the album.

“Suzette” chronicles a couple in a dysfunctional relationship of constant fighting and making up.

Suzette, I get so upset about us
We keep fighting we keep falling in love
All the games we play we always regret
Let’s forgive and forget, I love you Suzette

Today, country music is more popular than ever, even in urban areas. I don’t really follow it anymore but I did listen to Sturgill Simpson’s great 2016 album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Just Like Honey, The Jesus and Mary Chain

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Back in the mid/late 80s SPIN magazine was a hip alternative to Rolling Stone for people interested in “alternative” rock music. I subscribed for a number of years and credit the publication for turning me on to a number of great artists and albums. You have to remember that this was before the days of file sharing, Pandora or Spotify. Back then you only heard about great new music via word of mouth, radio or published articles/reviews.

One album in particular that I credit SPIN for alerting me to is Psychocandy by The Jesus and Mary Chain. The group was featured in an article about Scottish bands in the April 1986 issue. You can read it starting on page 29 of the link below.

Spin Magazine – April 1986

Then check out the ad on page 38.

The SotW is “Just Like Honey” from Psychocandy.

In an 1985 article in The Face, Max Bell described the JAMC sound beautifully:

“The Jesus And Mary Chain certainly make a fine racket. Guitars are pitched to distortion, feedback snarls, rhythms filter through to create a polyphonic and massive effect. Yet within this healthy maelstrom lurk conventional melody lines, whose impurities are matched by their catchiness.”

Yes indeed. I think of “Just Like Honey” as the melding of Spector’s Wall of Sound – it also utilizes Hal Blaine’s famous opening drum phrase from the Ronettes “Be My Baby” – Brian Wilson’s earliest, most innocent Beach Boys anthems, and The Velvet Underground’s distortion and feedback.

After more than 30 years, “Just Like Honey” and Psychocandy still sound sweet.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Senses Working Overtime, XTC

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Today’s SotW is from the “Restored” dresser drawer. It is “Senses Working Overtime” by XTC from the English Settlement album. “Senses…” reached the Top 10 in the UK but only managed #38 on the Rock Album Tracks chart in the US. It was released in two formats, the 4:34 single version and the 4:53 album version. Why Virgin records thought they needed to cut out a few lines to make the song 19 seconds shorter is incomprehensible to me.

“Senses…” is an impressive composition. The musicianship is amongst the best in the vast XTC catalog. The first of three sections opens with a folky “medieval” sounding acoustic guitar playing some variation on an E flat chord. Shortly it’s joined by a cool bass line. Colin Moulding flays his fretless bass with creativity and panache. I especially dig the legato slides.

The middle section makes effective use of diminished chords and acts as the bridge to the rousing count-up chorus.

The drumming is ear catching. The fills in the choruses (after the count of “5”) insist that listeners play “air” drums along with the record.

The lyrics are cryptic. Is it a peculiar love song? Is it about an insane person? It doesn’t really matter. To me it’s a lot like The Beatles (John Lennon’s) word salad, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” The expressive lyrical imagery is way more important than the “meaning.” Thematically, the lyrics are much closer to The Beatles (George Harrison’s) “All Too Much” from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.

Beyond the words are the way they sound. It was a creative mind game to write “1-2-3-4-5, senses working overtime.” After the count, you expect to hear 6-7 and get the word “senses” that’s a bit of a trick.

Sadly for us XTC fans, there were few opportunities to see the band live. In April 1982, just a few months after “Senses….” was released, the band played their last concert in San Diego. Andy Partridge experienced a nervous breakdown of sorts and was unable to perform in front of audiences. He retreated, Beatle like, to the studio and crafted several more outstanding albums – including Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons, and Nonsuch.

Enjoy… until next week.

BTW – Did anyone notice that everyone in the video is playing left handed — including the drummer. Still messing with our senses?

Song of the Week – Solar Marmalade, The Bevis Frond

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One of the dilemmas I face when I post each week is introducing my readers to songs that will appeal to the widest audience possible. But I’ve learned that when doing what I do (writing about obscurities) there will be large blocks of people that will HATE a certain percentage of my offerings. So I thank those of you that continue to read even when I suggest two or three songs in a row that you simply can’t stomach.

So be forewarned… today’s SotW will not have a broad appeal. But I know there are at least a few of you that would love to hear a good guitar wig-out. If you’re one of those people that appreciates guitarists that have huge pedal boards and use every one on it (e.g. J. Mascis), you will enjoy “Solar Marmalade” by The Bevis Frond. You know who you are!

“Solar Marmalade” is an 8 minute instrumental that starts “at 11” and never lets up. It employs fuzz, wah-wah and a whole lot more. It’s a bit psych, a tad proggy and just a little jazzy. Influences cover the spectrum from Hendrix and Black Sabbath to Punk and Grunge. The song is on the 30 cut, 1991 album, New River Head.

While you’re listening, here’s a little about the band. The Bevis Frond was the solo studio pseudonym of British guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Nick Saloman. He devised the alter ego in 1985, recording at home in the spare time he could squeeze out while raising his daughter as a stay at home dad. Once things started to take off, he formed a touring band.

If you like this “Solar Marmalade” but aren’t familiar with the band, check out their discography – it’s huge. By my count, they released 22 albums in the 18 years between 1987 and 2004 (and they’re on Spotify). The eclectic New River Head – with touch points from The Byrds to Husker Du — may be the best!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Funky Stuff, Kool & the Gang

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Back in the early 70s I played high school football. The tunes that were played in the locker room covered the entire spectrum of music that appealed to the diverse socio economic groups that were attracted to pay football.

Some (white guys) guys were into the Stones and Allmans. Some liked Zeppelin and Bowie. There were prog rock fans into Yes and ELP. There were singer/songwriter fans into James Taylor and CSN&Y.

Then there were the African American guys that turned us onto Al Green, the Chi-lites, the Stylistics, the O’Jays and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly. I loved, and still love, all those groups. But one of my favorite albums that I first heard in the locker room was Wild and Peaceful by Kool & the Gang. Today’s SotW is that disc’s “Funky Stuff.”

Now if your only familiarity with Kool & the Gang is from the wedding reception standard “Celebration” (1980) you may decide to stop reading right here and check in again next week. That would be a mistake.

Wild and Peaceful is a great album that contained three bona fide classics – “Jungle Boogie” (#4), “Hollywood Swinging” (#6) and “Funky Stuff” (#29). “Jungle Boogie” was revived in 1990 when master soundtrack programmer Quentin Tarantino used it to great effect in Pulp Fiction. (It starts after the credits and plays through the car radio as John Travolta and Samuel Jackson have the famous McDonald’s/Burger King discussion.)

Beside the hits are other great songs like the spoken word “Heaven At Once” and the 10 minute funk workout title song closer.

But back to “Funky Stuff”… It is the perfect album opener. It immediately grabs you with a whistle call to attention and its blaring, James Brown inspired horn section intro and doesn’t let up when the party starts. It adds a chugging, funky bass line, R&B guitar lick and more disco era whistles.

This is the real deal.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Love Surrounds Me, Dennis Wilson

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Today’s SotW was written by another guest contributor, Ron Marcus. Ron has guested for the SotW a couple of times before. He is an exceptional musicologist and rock historian. He’s also a (tie) dyed in the wool Dead Head, having attended almost 300 Grateful Dead concerts by 1993. Ron is also the drummer for Rockridge Station, a band based out of San Francisco’s East Bay that performs original songs and covers of Americana deep cuts.

The Beach Boys have spread their music around the world since 1961. Brian Wilson has written hundreds of songs and has been immortalized by his uncanny craft for hit songs and incredible production, especially vocal harmonies that have hummed in the heads of millions of people for generations. His story was on display in the fantastic biopic Love and Mercy and he just finished a worldwide tour honoring the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, his seminal album that inspired the Beatles to produce Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (considered by many the greatest recording of all time). His battles with mental illness are legendary and represent survival against many odds to come out so gracefully on the other side. Hardly Ignored or Obscured!

However, his brothers Dennis and Carl are a different story. Carl was a great surf guitarist, very underrated in his influence on other guitar players and his vocals on “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” are as beautiful as any ever sung. Dennis (the Beach Boys’ drummer) is known more for being the only one in the band who was actually a surfer and car racer. He was the one that nudged Brian to write surf and car songs, which paved the road (and waves!) to their legacy. He also is known for being a drunk and druggie who was eventually fired from the band. Of course, he was also infamous for his association with Charles Manson and his family; quite a way to be remembered.

This week’s SotW is called “Love Surrounds Me” by Dennis Wilson. It is from the previously unreleased Bambu, the follow up to his seminal 1977 solo album Pacific Ocean Blue.

POB was critically praised and a seller of 200,000 albums, it was the first solo release from any Beach Boy. Momentum high, he continued to write incredible, deep textured songs that were slated for inclusion on Bambu, recorded in 1978 and 1979.

As his personal life fell apart, he descended into such self-destructive behavior that he lost all the friends and believers who engineered and produced these songs. So the project died on the studio shelves where they stayed until 2007, 34 years after his tragic death. The engineers and producers finished the mixes and gave the world a treat releasing Pacific Ocean Blue on a 2 CD set that included outtakes and the aforementioned, unreleased Bambu.

“Love Surrounds Me” shows a sensitive side of the wild Beach Boy. He plays most of the keyboards and drums. The harmony vocals are so particular that he went to 6 different studios for final mixing! This track features future girlfriend Christine McVie, from Fleetwood Mac, as one of the singers,

This is just a taste of the depth of Dennis Wilson’s catalog. By the way, none of his songs are about surfers or cars! Just for the record, he is the uncredited writer of Joe Cocker’s 1974 hit ‘You Are So Beautiful.”

Enjoy… until next week.