Obama Llama: Imperial State Electric Of The Union

In desperation for something new, I bought the second Imperial State Electric CD Pop War. (Was hoping against hope I might find something good in the proposed “Remnants Review Top Albums From 2014” but that never materialized.)

This is guitarist-drummer-singer-songwriter-who-needs-no-explanation-at-this-point Nicke Andersson’s current project on his lifelong quest to eventually morph from pick-a-guy-in-Slayer to Paul McCartney. I bought the first album about a year ago and it’s OK. This is OK too. I think there’s one left. I’ll bet it’s OK.

I post this song because it’s so Cheap Trick even Lawr might like it. This live version is a little rougher than the studio version, but it at least gives us something to watch. Plus I know Peter likes looking at his idol Nicke.

Night Music: Cheap Trick, “I Know What I Want (and I Know How to Get it)”

I always have regretted not having seen Cheap Trick during their hey days in the late 70’s.

There were a couple of opportunities, particularly in 1978 at a Day on the Green, when AC/DC came around for the first time.

Also on the bill were Ted Nugent, whom I hated almost as much then as I do now, Journey, whom I hated almost as much as Ted Nugent, and Blue Oyster Cult who I couldn’t take seriously. For which I am now sorry.

But, AC/DC and Cheap Trick–the opening acts–were of major interest. And, I had a hard time justifying buying a ticket to just leave after two bands.

During their three-disc run of In Color and Black and White, Heaven Tonight, and Dream Police, the band totally kicked it for me, with driving pop-rock tunes peppered with clever lyrics, and a collection of players who seemed to have a shitload of fun doing what they were doing and being who they were being.

A side note about those three albums is, if you look closely at the album jackets, you will see a shot of the cover art of the previous album hidden. I always loved that.

By the time Budokan hit, and the band broke through, I was mostly done with them. Not that Budokan was not a hot set, or that Cheap Trick had done anything wrong. They just got too popular for me, I guess. They also lost air play time.

I was reunited with them when I started playing guitar for real, a little because they use simple major chords, and a little because my teacher and friend, Steve Gibson, was also a fan. And, then I met another friend and musician, Steve Chattler, who is a big “Trick,” as he calls them, fan as well.

Not to mention Diane grew up not so far from Rockford, home of the quartet, so somehow Cheap Trick wanted to be part of my existence, thus little point in resisting.

The song I picked for your bedtime listening is a fave. I Know What I Want has all kinds of Beatlesque stuff to it, especially the wonderful Eight Days a Week sus chords during the bridge.

I think the album version would be a lot cleaner than this live track from that very Budokan set, but since Steve (as in Moyer) is such a gearhead, I thought he would like what appears to be 30 strings among three guitar players.

Afternoon Snack: Green Day, “Jesus of Suburbia”

Sometime back Steve dissed Green Day.

I understand we all have our preferences, but I have been meaning to present them, maybe even with consideration as a great band.

I got to see them twice, way back when Dookie was released. In 1993, they were the opening act at the local BFD, a spring pre-cursor to Lollapalooza. That year was a heavyweight BFD, also featuring, Pavement, Luscious Jackson, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Rollins Band, the Flaming Lips, and the Knack (who had become a sort of cool post punk retro band).

I saw Green Day again a year later, still paying dues and working at their already well defined craft/attitude presented in Dookie. When that album came out, my legs could still allow me to run 25-35 miles a week, and Dookie was a Walkman favorite for a while.

I confess that I did not buy any Green Day discs till American Idiot was released a decade later, but their doggedness, and tuneful pop hits kept right on coming.

Warning. Redundant. When I Come Around among others, are all well done power pop/punk tunes to be sure.

But, I remember my friend George Anderson, making me sit in his car after we had picked up Chinese food. Jesus of Suburbia was next cut coming on the newly released American Idiot.

“You gotta listen to this before we go in. You will love it,” George implored.

That meant Mongolian beef and BBQ pork were going to cool down some, but I listened and George was right. I loved it.

Say what you will, but American Idiot is solid album, with clever tunes, a clean sound, and a lot of punch. Maybe it was popular, or chic, but I cannot see blaming the band for actually achieving what we all aspire to: commercial success.

Here is Jesus of Suburbia

For fun,  let’s toss in the band’s treatment of the Simpson’s theme from The Simpson’s Movie.

Obit: Paul Revere (1938-2014)

Way back in February, Peter wrote a Night Music piece on Paul Revere and the Raiders and I started to write this very article I am now updating.

I saw the band a couple of times in the early 60’s, opening for the Beach Boys, who played Sacramento a lot. In fact I was at the show that became The Beach Boys in Concert, and the Raiders played that gig.

The Raiders, headed by Paul Revere, were a more than entertaining collection of players who knocked out some very good pop hits. Just Like Me, Kicks, Louie Louie, and Him or Me, What’s it Gonna Be?, to name some.

But, Revere and band hold kind of a funny and dubious place in history.

At the time the first wave of British bands were washing onto the American shore and airwaves, the head of A&R at Columbia Records was none other than Mitch Miller. You know, the Sing Along With Mitch guy, who had a Van Dyke to give the illusion of beatnik coolness, but who in reality was as square as they come.

Convinced that long hair and Brit Pop were just a passing fancy, Miller dissuaded the Columbia powers that the company should not sign any of the zillion bands just waiting to be discovered, and by the time it was realized this was a business/tactical error, The Raiders were the first band signed, for a million clams.

Not that the band was bad: they were just a lot different than the British invasion bands.

Miller skedaddled from Columbia, and Clive Davis took over to a pretty successful run, but the plan definitely waylaid the company for a few years.

Anyway, Revere, the leader, passed away Saturday, perfectly enough at the age of ’76, and irrespective of Miller’s acumen, the Raiders were excellent showmen and musicians and songwriters.

I will leave you with a taste:  Hungry.

 

Patrick Davitt Explains Great Songs, or at least one great song.

Written By Patrick Davitt

So Ron Shandler wants us to offer our ideas about what makes a song great. As it happens, I’ve been thinking about that very topic.

In my house, we talk about music, the conversation usually being me telling my two daughters that most of the music they listen to is rubbish, them telling me I’m an old fogie who needs to get with the times “who thinks The Beatles are good” (well, uh, yeah) and, and my wife telling all of us to pipe down so she can hear her Patti Griffin album.

The other day, though, the tables were turned. I happened to have heard a fantastic pop song on the Songza streaming music service, but I didn’t know who sang it. I told the girls that I thought from the lyrics the title was “Tattooed Heart.”

This caused an eruption of disdainful hooting and eye-rolling so violent I feared for the girls’ future sight (mostly because I’d be on the hook for the glasses). “Oh, Daddy!” they said, practically in unison. “You’ve gotta be kidding! That’s Ariana Grande!”

Ariana Grande, if you’re as dark on the topic as I was, is a teen TV starlet on Nickelodeon who also has a burgeoning music career—a Selena Gomez who can really sing. And if you’re a teenage girl just a year or two beyond Grande’s tween audience, you are apparently obliged by cultural imperative to dismiss her out of hand.

For the most part, dismissal isn’t unwarranted. Grande sings mostly catchy but uninteresting, redundant formula crapola. She does a lot of electronic dance music, and soft pop-rap “collaborations” with second-rate hip-hop wannabes. Needless to add, the accompanying videos seem designed primarily to take advantage of her slightly sultry, mostly innocent prettiness.

But “Tattooed Heart” is just terrific.

My girls pressed me to explain why I thought this song is so fine, and that brings me to this discussion.

Ron addressed his query to a bunch of baseball analysts. When we are asked to describe or explain the greatness (or lack thereof) of a pitcher, we look at “metrics” like fastball velocity, strikeout rate, walk rate and groundball rate. For hitters, we look at hard contact rate, strikeout rate, line-drive and flyball percentages and so on.

So I thought I’d try to explain the power of “Tattooed Heart” using categories:

Melody: Basically, a terrific tune has to be catchy tune, with a solid “hook” that you find yourself humming or whistling later on. This song has a great hook when the title words resolve the tension in the structure. Speaking of which…

Structure: We are sort of culturally wired to like songs that follow certain musical rules—we want the song to finish in its key, with particular types of conflict and resolution along the way. “Tattooed Heart” uses a well-established four-chord doo-wop progression I-vi-IV-V (think “Stand By Me” or “Earth Angel”), which is itself a common variation on the highly reliable pop progression I-V-vi-IV (think, well, about half the pop hits ever written).

It isn’t that listeners should depend on or require such obvious and rigid structures. The Beatles, the Beach Boys and other bands started expanding on them in the mid-60s and in so doing laid a foundation for the vast universe of song structures that have been part of rock music ever since. I think every song on Dark Side of the Moon is great, and none of them is especially standard in structure. Or in any other way, come to think of it. Not a lot of 7/8 time in most pop music nowadays.

Style: Style matters, because there are some styles we like and others we don’t. Among many other styles, I happen to really like the highly manufactured Tin Pan Alley studio pop of the late ’50s and early ’60s. “Tattooed Heart” is a hybrid of doo-wop and girl-groups from that earlier era. Lots of people don’t like that style nearly as much, and as a result won’t think as much of this song as I do.

Performance: Often what makes a song a favorite or “great” is the performance. Grande’s vocal is a sweet powerhouse, soaring through multiple octaves under perfect control. And although she is often compared to Mariah Carey, Grande’s particular singing performance is mercifully free of the overwrought melisma that has marked (or disfigured) so much female pop singing since Carey first thundered onto the scene. In this song, Grande hits the notes and holds them.

The value or effect of performance is noticeable in songs that are widely covered. Staying power and the ability to survive the indignities of repeated covering might be a good indication that the song itself is something special. But even so, some performances are better than others, by orders of magnitude in many instances. Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” a great, great song, gets pretty cool coverage from Graham Parker, and Dar Williams (with Ani DiFranco), but there’s also a popular but ghastly dance/disco version by Scissor Sisters.

On another note, although it doesn’t apply to “Tattooed Heart,” which is a solo spotlight number all the way, I’m also a sucker for harmony singing (I even like barbershop). One of my favorite harmony performances ever was on Saturday Night Live during the Pleistocene Era, a thrilling performance of the George Harrison classic “Here Comes the Sun,” with Harrison and Paul Simon.

Arrangement and Production: “Tattooed Heart,” like everything on the album, is as highly polished as an apples in a grocery-store flyer. Early on, the arrangement is spare and spacious—underneath the very lightly vocal, we finger-snaps, light doo-wop “la-la-la-la” backing vocals from female background singers, and a lightly chording piano. Later in the song, from the first time into the chorus, the production adds increasingly dense orchestration—the backing singers start singing the title in the background, and lush strings (not samples but actual musicians, to judge by the extensive list of violinists, violists, cellists and string arrangers in the album credits). No performer credits for the tympanis, so they might be sampled, but, hey, tympanis!

There are five or six producers credited for the track, most of them also credited as writers, and the album further credits maybe three dozen arrangers, synth programmers and engineers. In all, it’s about as spontaneous as a rocket launch. But I think rocket launches are pretty great.

Again, I’m a sucker for elaborate, rich productions and arrangements. I loved the prog-rock era, and still listen to Floyd, Supertramp, and their ilk all the time.

Lyrics: I don’t count lyrics as a huge part of song greatness—I guess the best way to put it is that a tremendous lyric can add a few points but even the most banal lyric doesn’t matter that much. My favorite songs ever, the second movement of Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto and the Fraser McPherson version of the jazz standard “Tangerine,” don’t have words at all. And one of my favorite great pop songs the last few years is Crazy Sunshine” by The Pillows—they’re Japanese and they sing the whole song in that language except for the title.

Of course there’s no way to apportion points for each of these categories or otherwise to apply arithmetic to the assessment.

In all, I suppose “what makes a song good” makes me think of the 1964 Supremes—not the Motown girl group, but the Supreme Court of the United States. The court ruled in an obscenity case (Jacobellis vs. Ohio, if you’re keeping score at home) that the Louis Malle film Les Amants (The Lovers) was not “obscene.”

The most famous concurring opinion was written by Justice Potter Stewart, who said the First Amendment protected all obscenity short of “hard-core pornography,” and while he couldn’t “intelligibly define” what that is, “I know it when I see it.”

Ditto for assessing what makes a song great: We probably can’t intelligibly define it, even after we talk about it for a thousand words, but we know it when we hear it.

A Must-Have

Got my copy of the pretty-recent double-CD reissue of the T. Rex album (you’ll recognize the front cover on the youtube).

It’s simply kick-ass fantastic. As epic as are Electric Warrior and The Slider it’s hard to find this any less epic while listening.

This is the transitional T. Rex album, sharing elements of acoustic Tyrannosaurus Rex before and electric T. Rex to come.

I’m the first guy to call bullshit on bands and so much of Marc Bolan/T. Rex is bullshit – the Larry the Lamb vocals, strings, the silly fairlyland lyrics. Hell, I’d say any rock music including bongo drums is two strikes into bullshit territory already.

But T. Rex is great bullshit. I liked this album back in the early 80’s when a real punk rocker I loaned this to made off with my copy (among other stuff) when he suddenly moved back to the LA Hardcore scene with no notice. I hadn’t heard all of it in a long time. The song I offer, Beltane Walk, along with Jewel and One Inch Rock are up there with just about anything. And most everything else is pretty darn close.

Beltane Walk is another choice of mine for a perfect pop song with its hooky chorus. I’m also a sucker for the upstroke guitar clucks during the verses. Love the guitar tone too.

The extra disc includes lots of raw stuff that’s fun to listen to. On one cut, Bolan honks a jump up to a Larry the Lamb falsetto with a frog in his throat and the recording ends right then and there.

I’ve said this many times before and I’ll say it many times again, but the fact that Bolan/T. Rex isn’t in the Rock Hall of Fame (and isn’t really even in the conversation) make the whole endeavor a joke all by itself.

“And then we’ll a-woke. . .”

The Perfect Pop Song

Made the long drive yesterday to see my kids the rest of this week and grabbed Cheap Trick’s In Color as part of my CD driving arsenal. Hadn’t listened to it in many years – I usually pick Heaven Tonight when I pick Trick (ho ho, I should be a morning DJ).

Realized yesterday that In Color is a really good album, better than Heaven Tonight.

This song struck me as as close to perfect as a pop song can be. There’s nothing new here and I have no idea what Robin Zander is singing about, but it sure does give you that giddy feeling in the tummy that a great pop song should.

Considered doing a “Most Perfect Pop Songs” Steveslist five, but how could anyone begin to get that right without months of research?

Enjoy.

Lawr Michaels Hates These Songs (most of which have to do with Martin Luther King)

You may, too. I’m not here to argue that they’re great music. But I think they’re pretty spunky pop songs, and for some reason Lawr picked them out of thin air and created a pantheon of my bad taste.

But maybe you don’t know about them.

Royal Guardsmen, “Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron”

History is a deep well of ideas for stories and songs. This song borrows a rather odd story from the Peanuts comic strip to tell the story of the greatest fighter pilot if World War I, the war to end all wars, and how he was vanquished by a cartoon beagle whose best friend was named Woodstock. With harmonies and sound effects, and Snoopy of course, who at the time was big. Irresistible. As a 10 year old I don’t think I thought much about the copyright implications of using a character created by someone else in a pop song. But the writers were sued by Charles Schulz, the creator of Snoopy, and United Features Syndicate, which sold the strips to newspapers, and lost, and ended up giving up all publishing royalties to Snoopy’s creator. Ouch.

Fun fact: Co writer Dick Holler’s other big hit song was “Abraham, Martin and John,” performed by Dion. Martin Luther King fact No. 1.

Bobby Goldsboro, “Honey”

This is not rock in any shape or form. It’s Lawrence Welk crossed with some kind of kitchen sink melodrama, shaped by Jeff Koons. I like the plain spoken words, which don’t overreach while drawing grandiosely from a vocabulary of knee jerk emotion. Rain falling on kittens? Go away. The song was written by a guy named Bobby Russell, whose other hits were Little Green Apples and The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, two other songs Lawr probably hates.

Fun fact: Honey hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts the week Martin Luther King was murdered. Martin Luther King fact No. 2.

Strawberry Alarm Clock, “incense and Peppermints”

The Strawberry Alarm Clock are still touring and recording. This, thier first single, has some of the sound of a Door’s song, but it also has sweet backing vocals, skrunky guitar breaks, pentatonic piano backups, and a lot of other fake psychedelic effects, ending with a sweet Cowsills-like harmony. It is all going to be alright.

Fun fact: The band’s drummer worked up a jet system attached to his wrists, so it looked like his hands were on fire while he played.

After their No. 1 experience they were scheduled to go on tour with the Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield, but many dates in the south were cancelled after Martin Luther king was killed. MLK fact No. 3.

Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit In the Sky”

I was going to write a lot about the guitars and the backup singers. Norman’s plain and straight-forward vocals, and the song’s clean melody. It’s a rhythmic stomp, a dark harbinger, and an inspiration even if you’re an unbeliever, all at once. But it’s the killer guitar sound and the gospel singers backing it up that make it work. But then I saw the video. Wow. There is that Jesus stuff, but Norman was a good Jewish boy trying to write some Gospel music, and he succeeded. Though for me it isn’t the gospel, it’s the sound, which is pretty unusual for AM radio hits.

Bob Dylan is another Jewish boy to write praise songs for the Lord. FWIW.

I’m told the song is used to introduce the Angels of Anaheim before their home games. Good choice.

And then there is Martin Luther King fact No. 4.

Zager and Evans, “In the Year 2525”

Totally catchy, but totally ridiculous. I’m embarrassed for ever having suggested this had any redeeming value. Fun fact: It was knocked off the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 by the Stones Honkey Tonk Women.

Plus, there is no Zager and Evans and Martin Luther King connection. How can that be?

Night Music: Paul Revere and the Raiders, “Like, Long Hair”

I’m down in Williamsburg Virginia, and, well, Mark Lindsey and his band dressed up in those period costumes, just like everyone in the historic park here.

I wanted to find a song less obvious than Kicks, but while I like listening to their other pop songs (the songs are good, the guitars and harmonies strong), and I own the vinyl of their greatest hits album, Kicks is the song of theirs that really stands out. Written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill for the Animals, but when Eric Burdon didn’t want to sing it they passed it on to the Raiders.

The thing I learned about Paul Revere and the Raiders today is that they were actually started by a guy named Paul Revere, an organist, who played in a few different bands with Mark Lindsey before they named themselves Paul Revere and the Raiders in 1960. They released their first hit, “Like, Long Hair” in 1961, the title refers to the Rachmaninoff riff it starts with (this was back when classical music was referred to as long-hair music), but Revere was doing community service in a hospital at the time to work off his Conscientious Objector status, so he was replaced on the band’s first national tour by Leon Russell.

Their next hit single was a version of Louie Louie that may have predated the Kingsman’s hit version, recorded in the same studio.

The group didn’t start wearing the costumes until after the start of the British Invasion, which played directly into the band’s name and their musical style, which they reshaped in the wake of the sounds of the Beatles and Yardbirds and others.