Song of the Week – Helter Skelter & Dear Prudence, The Beatles

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The Beatles (more commonly known as the White Album) was released 50 years ago.  In celebration, a new, boxed set has just come out with remixes of the songs by Giles Martin, the son of the Beatles’ long time producer, George Martin.  The box includes the Esher demos – primitive recorded sketches of the songs, mostly written on the band’s trip to India, intended for learning them prior to entering the recording studio.  It also has previously unreleased outtakes and alternate versions.

The Beatles has long been admired and excoriated for the range of styles it explores.  Its 30 songs cover a broad spectrum of styles – some more successfully than others.  This has led to a decades long debate among Beatles’ scholars about whether or not the album should have been edited down to a single album instead of a double, and which songs should have made the cut.

The breadth of the album also provided an opportunity for John and Paul to break out of their stereotyped songwriting roles.  Paul was known for his sentimental ballads (“Yesterday,” Michelle,” “Here, There and Anywhere”) and John for writing caustic rockers (“Day Tripper,” “Help,” “Run for Your Life”).  Not that the White Album didn’t hold true to those labels — i.e. Paul’s “I Will” and “Mother Nature’s Son,” and John’s “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” — but they also did a role reversal.

Paul’s “Helter Skelter” stands among the Beatles’ recordings with the hardest edge.

Who would have thought this track would evolve from the blues dirge heard on Take 2 (available on the Anthology series) into the up-tempo rocker we know from the White Album?

“Helter Skelter” was ruined for many people by its association with Charles Manson and his “family” of murderers.  I like the intro Bono made when U2 covered the song in concert – “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles.
We’re stealing it back.”  Hopefully we have all stolen it back now that Manson is dead and gone.

John contributed two beautifully sentimental cuts to The Beatles.  “Julia” is a tribute to his mother that abandoned him in his early childhood but came back into his life as a teenager only to be killed shortly afterward in a car accident.  The other was “Dear Prudence,” which was one of his finest compositions – not just for the White Album, but in his entire repertoire.

“Prudence” was written for Prudence Farrow (Mia’s sister) who was on the India meditation trip with them.  She became so focused on her practice that she locked herself in her room to meditate all day.  John tried to persuade her through song to “come out and play.”  At the end of the Esher demo John explains “Who was to know that [suppressed giggle] sooner or later she was to go completely berserk in the care of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  All the people around were very worried about the girl, because she was going insane.  So we sang to her.” 

Although The Beatles has been criticized for being bloated with non-essential cuts (“Don’t Pass Me By,” “Wild Honey Pie,” “Revolution #9”) it still holds up after 50 years.  In my opinion, it is the diversity, risk taking, and wide range of musical genres that account for its enduring charm.  There’s something for everyone.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Tired of Midnight Blue, George Harrison

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In late 1974, George Harrison released Dark Horse, his fifth solo album that coincided with a concert tour.  Anyone who is familiar with this album or witnessed the tour knows that Harrison sounded different than he had ever sounded before.  His voice was suffering from laryngitis, the result of alcohol, drugs and over working.

His next album, Extra Texture, has often been considered as an inconsequential effort that was produced with little focus simply to take advantage of time available in A&M studios that would otherwise have gone unused (and to satisfy his contractual commitment to Apple/EMI).

But Extra Texture has a few highlights, like its lone single, “You,” that reached #20 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Another is today’s SotW – “Tired of Midnight Blue.”

The song’s backstory is that Harrison wrote the it after a night out in LA where he was bored with the phony club scene and wished he had simply stayed at home instead.

The sun came into view 
As I sat with the tears in my eyes 
The sun came up on you 
And as you smiled, the tear-drop it dried.

I don’t know where I had been 
But I know what I had seen 
Made me chill right to the bone 
Made me wish that I’d stayed home – along with you 
Tired of midnight blue.

The track has a beautiful piano intro, played by Leon Russell.  In fact, it has one of Russell’s finest performances throughout.  Jim Keltner was on drums (and cowbell) and session man Paul Stallworth played bass.

Even Harrison’s least important records had some very worthwhile music to hear, and “Tired of Midnight Blue” is a textbook example.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Suite: Cashing Out / Sigh of Relief / The Midnight Dancer / All the Time / Distant Lands, Garcia Peoples

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Lately I’ve been listening a lot to an album by a New Jersey based band called Garcia Peoples.  The name of the band betrays their main stylistic influences, primarily the Grateful Dead.

The album, Cosmic Cash, is their debut.  For the most part, the band on record avoids the temptation to give us long jams, instead opting for more concise, 3-5 minute tracks.  The one exception is today’s SotW, “Suite: Cashing Out / Sigh of Relief / The Midnight Dancer / All the Time / Distant Lands.”

A review of the album at Psych Insight Music says this about the Suite.

“[It] begins with a really rather punky overture before segueing into one of the most powerful parts of the album, ‘Sign of Relief’, which is the sound of a band straining at the leash yet containing itself… that sense of wanting to break out yet remaining on the edge itself is a skill in itself. ‘The Midnight Dancer’ is a funky slow groove of a movement that goes off-kilter in a Talking Heads sort of way before segueing into ‘All The Time’ with Garcia Peoples twin guitar attack really coming to the fore. Again elements of blues and rock are nicely folded into an overall feeling of love for the music the band are playing. This before bringing the whole thing to a close with ‘Distant Lands’ with its infusion of southern heat that really helps this track and, again, the album generally radiate warmth and a certain generosity of spirit. This ‘suite’ is a terrific fourteen minutes of music that, for me is worth the admission fee on its own.”


Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – One Meatball, Ry Cooder & Josh White

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I’ve long been a fan of Ry Cooder.  He’s the coolest guy.  His long career includes early work with Taj Mahal in the influential Rising Sons, as well as with Captain Beefheart, Randy Newman and the Rolling Stones, to name just a few.

His own solo albums are compendiums of American roots music that exemplify his exquisite taste in music.  Take, for example, today’s SotW, “One Meatball” from his eponymous 1970 debut album.

“One Meatball” is an 1944 update by Lou Singer and Hy Zaret of an 1855 song written by Harvard Latin professor George Martin Lane called “The Lone Fish Ball.”  (Sadly, Lane is better known today for his silly ballad than his academic work.)

The song tells the tale of a poor dude that goes into a restaurant to eat but can only afford one meatball and encounters a derisive waiter.

A little man walked up and down,
To find an eating place in town,
He read the menu through and through,
To see what fifteen cents could do.

One meatball, one meatball,
He could afford but one meatball.

He told the waiter near at hand,
To sample dinner he had planned.
The guests were startled, one and all,
To hear that waiter loudly call,

“One meatball, one meatball?

This here gent wants one meatball.”

(Cooder final verse)

The little man felt very sad,
For one meatball is all he had
And in his dreams he hears that call
“You gets no bread with one meatball.”

(Original, third verse that Cooder skips)

The little man felt ill at ease,
Said, “Some bread, sir, if you please.”
The waiter hollered down the hall,
“You gets no bread with one meatball.

There are numerous other versions to check out on YouTube or Spotify.  I’ll treat you to one more of my favorites, by folk/blues artist Josh White.

For those of you in the Bay area, you can catch Cooder with Roseanne Cash at the War Memorial Opera House on December 5-6.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – The Falling Song, Chris Barber

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I’m a loyal supporter of MOJO magazine, trying to convince any music lover I can that they should be a subscriber.  Why do I promote the magazine so reliably?  Because I still find it to be the very best source for discovering great, new music that I wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.  So if your thirst for new music is as voracious as mine, MOJO offers listening ideas as plentiful as candy corn at Halloween.

For instance, the “Buried Treasure” article in the October 2018 issue featured an album called Drat That Fratle Rat! by Chris Barber, the British, traditional jazz trombonist.  At the time of its release in 1972, Barber was already 42 years old, which made him an unlikely collaborator with some of the hot rock ‘n roll talents of the day, including Irish guitar slinger Rory Gallagher and Stone the Crows drummer Colin Allen.

Intrigued, I had to check this out.  And I’m glad I did!

My choice for SotW is the second cut on the album – “The Falling Song” — and features a vocal by Tony Ashton who performed (vocals, keyboards) with a who’s who of British rock royalty with various bands and as a session player

What really grabs me about “The Falling Song” is its sophisticated, jazzy horn arrangement.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise since this is really Barber’s gig.  The result is a British sounding version of the David Clayton-Thomas era Blood Sweat & Tears.

This is music worth hearing that I likely would never have discovered without MOJO.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Viva La Vida, Marty Balin

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Today’s Song of the Week (SotW) was written by guest contributor Ron Marcus.  This is Ron’s third trip around the track as a SotW author.  Ron is a very knowledgeable musicologist and a mega fan of the late Marty Balin.  In fact, he met Balin and even shared some of his song lyrics with him.

My name is Ron Marcus and I am honored that Tom has asked me to guest contribute a SotW in honor of the late Marty Balin.  Most of you know his history as the founder of Jefferson Airplane and a hitmaker with Jefferson Starship.  In 1965 he formed the Airplane and opened a nightclub in San Francisco called The Matrix.  He hosted all the original San Francisco bands and gave birth to the San Francisco sound that came out of the Haight Ashbury.  Even before Bill Graham, Marty is credited with creating a scene that actually changed the western world and beyond.

His hits with Jefferson Airplane included “It’s No Secret,” “Today,” “Coming Back to Me” and “Volunteers.” With Jefferson Starship he wrote their smash hit “Miracles,” along with “Count on Me,” “St. Charles” and “Runaway.”  His voice became legendary and he is still regarded as one of the greatest singers in rock and roll.

Then a funny thing happened in the 1980s.  Although he had two hits in 1981, — “Hearts” and “Atlanta Lady” — after that he slipped into obscurity.  He no longer could get a record deal and had to rely on small labels to release his catalog of 16 albums as a solo artist.  However, what lies so hidden in these gems are some of the best, heart felt love songs ever recorded. And (sadly) virtually no one has heard them!

Today’s SotW is called “Viva La Vida.”  It is from a 2010 disc called Blue Highway.

Marty Balin – Viva La Vida

It was inspired by the story of Frida Kahlo. In fact, Mary Balin was also an excellent painter and has incredible portraits of the rock stars he shared a stage with.  I chose this song because it presents a sense of optimism and a love of life, music and art. The horn section is especially vibrant. I have heard nearly every song Balin has recorded and I can assure you that none sound remotely like this.

I urge you to check his website at where you can see 10 of his ultra rare CDs and his artwork.  Although often Ignored and Obscured, Marty Balin was BY FAR the most creative and productive of all the original Jefferson Airplane members. His voice, spirit and his Viva La Vida (long live life) will be missed by millions, though only a few has really heard the full extent of his music.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Plastic Hamburgers, Fantastic Negrito

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In 2015, Fantastic Negrito (Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz) won a contest to be the first NPR, undiscovered artist, Tiny Desk performer.  The Oakland based musician was initially signed to Interscope in the ‘90s, but became disillusioned with the record industry and was further sidelined by a car accident that caused serious injury and left him in a coma for several weeks.

Fast forward to 2014 when the socio-political state sparked FN to revive his musical career.  He’s recently released his second album from his second round in “the business,” called Please Don’t Be Dead.

The opening song on the album is “Plastic Hamburgers.”

“Plastic Hamburgers” is a powerful blues track that brings masters like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters into the 21st century.  I hear a contiguous line from Led Zeppelin to Lenny Kravitz to Jack White.

The lyrics speak to the current American social condition:

Americans pills will wreck and kill
American pills will wreck and kill
Automatic weapon in a twitching hand
The 50-foot wall of addiction, man
Do you, do you understand?

Let’s break out these chains, let’s burn it down

You don’t have to be a genius to understand what he’s getting at!  He told NPR “I wanted to come out swinging. With everything happening in the world, I wanted to take it head on.  Addiction, guns, censorship, overconsumption. I wanted people to feel like this is our song, our rallying cry: Let’s tear down the walls that separate us and face who we really are.”

The music world could use more artists with the courage and integrity to make recordings like this.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Autumn Song, Van Morrison

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Back in the early ‘70s I would scour the “cut out” bins for discounted records wherever they were sold.  If you knew what you were doing you could pick up some real bargains – often albums by great artists that were overstocked because they didn’t meet sales expectations, for whatever reason.

I distinctly remember scoring The Great Lost Kinks Album and Van Morrison’s Hard Nose the Highway, both released in 1973.  They are both excellent albums that are considered minor efforts in each artists’ catalog.

Earlier this year, MOJO magazine published an article entitled “20 Unloved Albums… and Why We Love Them.”  Hard Nose… was one of them.  The article points out that upon release the record suffered mostly negative reviews.  The most scathing may have been from Charlie Gillett.  MOJO reports Gillett criticizing Morrison for “’flabby’ lyrics, ‘boring vocal[s]’ and ‘lack of … melodic focus.’”  According to Wikipedia, Robert Christgau rated the album a B-, and Rolling Stone reviewer Dave Marsh called it “a failed sidestep, a compromise between the visionary demands of Morrison’s work and his desire for a broad-based audience” and gave it only one star.

But MOJO also pointed out that Lester Bangs wrote that it had an “entire side of songs about falling leaves.”  I’m not sure if that was meant as a compliment, but it is certainly accurate.  And that leads me to today’s SotW – “Autumn Song.”

“Autumn Song” is my favorite cut from HNtH.  The song is a 10+ minute exercise in autumnal mindfulness.  Close your eyes, clear you mind, and roll with his honied, ecstatic excursion through the simple joys of life.

Little stroll past the house on the hill
Some more coal on the fire will do well
And in a week or two it’ll be Halloween
Set the page and the stage for the scene

Little game the children will play
And as we watch them while time away
Look at me and take my breath away

You can almost see and hear the leaves falling.

Leaves of brown they fall to the ground
And it’s here, over there leaves around
Shut the door, dim the lights and relax
What is more, your desire or the facts

Pitter patter the rain falling down
Little glamor sun coming round
Take a walk when autumn comes to town

Jef Labes’ piano trills and John Platania’s guitar fills perfectly compliment the melody and sentiment of the song.  And, as usual, Van’s singing is superb.  About halfway through Van starts to riff on the lyrics in a sort of stream of consciousness that evolves into a melodic “da da, da da da, dah da-da” then back into the riffing through to the end.

The imagery is so vibrant that you might assume the song was written and recorded in New England.  But the album was recorded at a studio he had built near a home he once owned in Fairfax, California.

Hard Nose the Highway?  Unloved no more.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Black Cloud, Trapeze

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Trapeze was a ‘70s British blues rock band that was led by Glenn Hughes (lead vocals, guitar), Mel Galley (guitar, primary songwriter), and Dave Holland (drums).  Aside from the success these musicians had together in Trapeze, each burnished their artistic pedigree with other prominent heavy metal bands – Hughes with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, Galley with Whitesnake, and Holland with Judas Priest.

To my ear Trapeze sounds more like Free, cousin Bad Company, or maybe Humble Pie, than any of those harder rock bands that the members graduated to.  Take, for instance, today’s SotW – “Black Cloud” — from the second Trapeze album, Medusa (1970).

The song blasts off with a heavy, electric guitar riff, then transitions into the acoustic guitar driven verse.  By the time the chorus comes around the fuzz is back with a cowbell emphasizing every beat.

Hughes delivers an especially soulful performance on “Black Cloud.”  Galley delivers a funky blues rock boogie to drive it.  Drummer Holland holds it all together.  The Trapeze power trio — a very popular format in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s — proves that it could be very powerful and effective.  Though they’re no equivalent to the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Cream, they can run with Mountain or Grand Funk.

Enjoy… until next week.