Today’s SotW was drafted last night
after I learned that Neil Peart, of Rush, died earlier this week, on January 7th. Now I have to confess, Rush is NOT one of my
favorite bands. But I respect what they
contributed to the history of progressive rock music and I especially respect
Peart’s mastery of the drums and his knack for writing intellectual lyrics.
Today’s SotW is “Bastille Day,” Peart’s
tribute to the event that kicked off the French Revolution.
‘60s soul man, Jerry Butler, earned the
nickname “Ice Man” for his cool, baritone vocals. He began his recording career with Curtis Mayfield’s
Impressions in 1958, but quickly quit that group for a solo career.
By 1968, Butler found himself on Mercury records, working with writers/producers Gamble and Huff, later of Philadelphia International fame. They helped Butler reach his apex with The Iceman Cometh album. It contained two of Butler’s best known recordings – “Hey, Western Union Man,” and today’s SotW, “Only the Strong Survive.”
“Only the Strong Survive” reached #4 on
the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard Black Singles chart in early
1969. It is another in the long line of
songs whose message resonated as a ‘60s civil rights anthem.
The spoken word intro (similar to Clarence
Carter’s “Patches”) offers mama’s words of wisdom:
I remember my first love affair
Somehow or another the whole darn thing went
My mama had some great advice
So I thought I’d put it into words of this song
I can still hear her sayin’
But the payoff is in the chorus, where
mama’s message goes beyond how to deal with a break up. It is a more universal life’s lesson.
Only the strong survive
Only the strong survive
You’ve got to be a man, you’ve got to take a stand
So I’m telling you right now only the strong survive
Only the strong survive
Hey, you’ve got to be strong, you’d better hold on
Elvis Presley released his popular
version of the song on his 1969 long player, From Elvis In Memphis. That’s
the one that also included the hit “In the Ghetto.”
The Iceman is the perfect companion for
a dark winter’s day.
One of the “best albums you’ve never
heard” is Are You Serious? (1977), by
Van Duren. Especially if you are a power
pop fan (as I am). There isn’t a self-respecting
list of the greatest power pop albums of all time that doesn’t include Are You Serious?. But that should be no surprise given that Doren
came from the same Memphis scene that birthed Big Star.
The smart, pop of the tracks on Are You Serious? will remind you of Duren’s
contemporary, Emitt Rhodes. And like
Rhodes, Duren played most of the instruments on the album — in fact pretty
much everything except drums.
So the date on the calendar compels me to choose “New Year’s Eve” as today’s SotW. But YouTube only has a link to the whole album, so here it is!
It’s a love song that recounts a relationship
that starts at a teenage New Year’s Eve party.
The rest of the album is equally as infectious
and should be auditioned by all SotW readers.
Duren followed up his debut with another
fine record – Idiot Optimism. But due to some shady business involving his
recording studio owner and producer, Scientology, and bad luck, Idiot Optimism languished in the vaults
until it was finally released in 1999, 20 years after it was finished!
A documentary was released this year
called Waiting: The Van Duren Story. It was made by two Australians — Wade
Jackson and Greg Carey – who discovered Are
You Serious? and wanted to learn the story about the album’s obscurity and
Duren’s abandoned career. They tracked
down Duren and convinced him to cooperate with their project.
I haven’t seen it yet. It’s not currently screening anywhere, isn’t
streaming on Netflix and isn’t for sale on DVD.
But I will watch it as soon as it is available.
Titanic Rising, the 2009 album by Weyes Blood (Natalie Laura Mering) is receiving huge plaudits in the year-end polls for Best Albums of 2019. Paste recently placed it at #1! I like the album, but I don’t love it. Some of the atmospheric noodling on it just bore me. But the album does contain one of my favorite songs of the year – “Something to Believe.”
“Something to Believe” starts of sounding
like The Carpenters, but hipper. But the
simple piano based ballad develops into so much more. There’s a haunting slide guitar that perfectly
hits the mark. And the production
expands into a fully orchestrated arrangement with Mering’s vocals soaring
above it all – Court and Spark era
Joni Mitchell like. This is no doubt
partly in credit to Foxygen’s Jonathon Rado, who co-produced the album.
Lyrically, Mering calls for the need for
connection to other people.
Give me something I can see Something bigger and louder than the voices in me Something to believe
On a side note, the name Weyes Blood was
inspired by the Flannery O’Connor novel Wise
Blood, so I assume that’s how the band name is supposed to be pronounced.
Well, we’ve reached December and the
year-end is right around the corner. For
me, that means it is time to start thinking about my favorite songs and albums
of the year.
An easy call for me is to include Vampire
Weekend’s 2019 release, Father of the
Bride. I’m sure I’m not alone. After waiting 6 years for this long-player,
their fans were starving for some new music from the group. I remember going onto Spotify that May day it
was released and seeing that several of the friends I follow were all listening
to it simultaneously.
I wanted to make a cut from Father of the Bride a SotW earlier in the year, but I couldn’t decide which song to pick. Would it be “This Life,” or maybe “Sunflower?” I’m going to go with the first single they dropped from the album – “Harmony Hall.”
This track is 5 minutes of crisp, clean music
that exudes a Grateful Dead, jam band vibe – especially with the guitar figure
that starts around 3:45. They even make
judicious use of the vibraslap.
The lyrics are vague and could be interpreted
in many ways. To me, the lyrics evoke societal
frustrations, but vocalist Ezra Koenig delivers them with an optimistic tone.
wants a voice / Voices wanna sing
harmonize / Till they can’t hear anything
thought that I was free / From all that questionin’
every time a problem ends / Another one begins
don’t want to live like this / But I don’t want to die
a side note, last year Koenig had a kid with Rashida Jones (daughter of Peggy
Lipton and Quincy Jones) of The Office and Parks and Recreation.
In October, Peter Frampton officially
retired, wrapping up his “Finale: The Farewell Tour” in nearby Concord, CA. Sadly, the underrated guitarist was motivated
to undertake a final tour because he has been battling a degenerative muscle
disease – inclusion-body myositis – that would eventually rob him of his
ability to perform.
famous for his mega-sales, live double album, Frampton Comes Alive! (1976), Frampton deserves recognition for so
Frampton started to play in bands when he
was only 12 years old. By the time he
was 16, he was recording with The Herd.
When Steve Marriott, of The Small Faces,
formed Humble Pie in 1969, Frampton was recruited to be in that band’s original
line-up. Frampton joined Humble Pie, in
part to escape the teen idol image he was tagged with as the frontman for The Herd. He stayed with the band until 1971 when the
development of his softer, pop songwriting didn’t fit in with Marriott’s more hard-rocking
Today’s SotW, “Shine On,” is a good example of that quandary.
“Shine On” is the lead track from Humble
Pie’s fourth album, Rock On (1971). The heavy guitar combined with a keen pop
sensibility of “Shine On” point toward the songs that would make Frampton an
international superstar later in the decade with hits like “Show Me the Way”
and “Baby, I Love Your Way.” He delivers
a terrific, soulful vocal too.
It was fitting that Frampton chose to
close out his career in northern California.
His high watermark, Frampton Comes
Alive!, was recorded primarily at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom.
Back in the mid-‘70s, a 21-year-old,
Japanese jazz pianist, Akiko Yano, was in the midst of recording her first solo
album with the Japanese group Caramel Mama, when someone suggested she work
with some western rock musicians.
She liked the idea… if she could work
with an American rock group that she really adored – Lowell George’s Little
Feat. Little Feat agreed to the gig and
met her at Hollywood Sound Studio in Los Angeles for the recording session.
The resulting album, Japanese Girl (1976), has Little Feat on side 1 and her Japanese accompanists on side 2. My pick for the SotW is “Sayonara.”
“Sayonara” immediately grabs you with
its sexy, funky groove. MOJO’s Jim Irvin
The album opens,
paradoxically, with Sayonara, introduced by what sounds like the unmistakable
New Orleans lope of Bill Payne’s piano.
Except that it’s Akiko who plays all the keyboards on the record. Halfway through, the song dissolves into a
scat vocal segment, jazzy piano leads into a dreamlike jam and climaxes with
the band going full tilt as Akiko hits long, siren-like notes on the
synthesizer. You’re immediately aware
this record isn’t going down any expected path…”
At the time, Yano didn’t speak English
(and Little Feat didn’t speak Japanese), but they clearly had no problem
If you’re a Little Feat fan (and who isn’t!)
you will love this hidden gem that has been recently released outside of Japan
for the first time.
I read some very favorable reviews of
the fourth album (and second released in 2019) – Two Hands – by the Brooklyn based band, Big Thief, so I decided to
give it a listen. Singer Adrianne Lenker’s
breathy vocals are very pretty, but after several cuts, nothing was really
Then the seventh song, “Not,” came on and I was hooked. And it is worthy to be featured as the SotW.
Instead of the “indie-Americana” (I just
made that up) that describes most of Big Thief’s material, this track veers off
into a cacophony of grungy guitar distortion – and I mean that in the best way. Neil Young would approve!
The “negativity” of the lyrics is complemented
and reinforced by the noisy accompaniment.
It’s not the room
Not the crowd
Not the planet
Not a ruse
Not the fire lapping up the creek
That you eat
In 1927, Joseph Ravel was commissioned
to compose his final and most famous piece – Boléro. Though most people
know Bolero as a musical composition, the commission was originally to provide
a score for Ida Rubinstein’s ballet company.
But Boléro has become most
famous as the score to a different dance.
(More on that later.)
Is the SotW venturing into classical
music? Hell no! There are quite a few notable rock songs that
reference Boléro, and that’s today’s
Roy Orbison (aka “Lefty Wilbury”) is often credited as the first rock musician to use the Boléro theme in a rock song – “Running Scared” (1961).
“… Scared” opens with a simple guitar
strumming, then builds with each verse, much like Ravel’s piece. All of the instruments are layered on, piece
by piece, building to an immense climax.
It is also notable that the song has no chorus.
In 1966 Jeff Beck, soon after leaving the Yardbirds, decided to record his first single and called on his old friend Jimmy Page to help out. They proceeded to lay down “Beck’s Boléro,” which would become the b-side to the “Hi Ho Silver Lining” single.
They called on John Paul Jones to play bass and Keith Moon for drums. Page agreed to play 12-string electric rhythm so Beck could take on lead guitar responsibilities.
The Jefferson Airplane hired Grace Slick to replace Signe Anderson as their lead singer in 1966. Slick brought a couple of her own songs to the group, including the Boléro based classic, “White Rabbit.”
“White Rabbit” reached #8 on the
Billboard pop chart in 1967. The
military march that ties back to Ravel’s Bolero is immediately
recognizable. The song is currently
featured in an ad for a cruise line!
Joe Walsh, of the James Gang (and later Eagles), was also influenced by Boléro. The Gang’s second album, Rides Again (1970), included a suite — “The Bomber: Closet Queen”/ “Bolero”/ “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”
The rights holders to Ravel’s Boléro objected to the James Gang’s use
of the composition in their recording and forced the band to delete that
section from future pressings of the album, instantly creating a collector’s
Ravel’s Bolero received a boost in popularity in 1979 when it was featured in the movie 10. In the movie, Bo Derek’s character (physically a perfect “10”) tells Dudley Moore’s character “Boléro was the most descriptive sex music ever written” and asks “Did you ever do it to Ravel’s Boléro?” Millions of copies of Bolérowere sold following the commercial success of 10.
In 2012, London based music psychologist
Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen analyzed the results of a Spotify survey of songs in “music
to make love to” playlists. The
winner? Marvin Gaye for “Sexual Healing”
and “Let’s Get It On.” But Ravel’s Boléro was next in line.
Back in the early ‘80s, I tuned in to
Austin City Limits one night to see an episode featuring a guitarist named
Stevie Ray Vaughan. At the time I hadn’t
heard of the guy. But I was really
impressed with his guitar playing even though I wasn’t familiar with most of
his repertoire because, as I’m ashamed to admit, I didn’t yet know who he
was. But when he played the familiar
cover of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” I was blown away. I knew immediately this guy could play
From that point I began to follow Vaughan
and became a big fan. Too bad his life
was cut short in a helicopter crash in 1990, at the age of 35. The real shame of it is that after many years
of drug and alcohol abuse, Vaughan was finally getting straight. In fact, his last studio album with his band
Double Trouble, In Step (1989), was a
reference to the sobriety he reached through a 12 Step program.
So, today’s SotW is my favorite track from In Step, “Crossfire.”
“Crossfire” opens with a funky baseline
and solid beat that leaves room for an organ riff and a few nicely placed
guitar stabs. Vaughan gives an
impassioned vocal performance and whips off some tasteful guitar solos. In the last 30 seconds, Vaughan plays a very
cool, staccato run of notes that lifts the song to another level just before it
The “Crossfire” writing credit was given
to the full band – Vaughan, Tommy Shannon (bass), Chris Layton (drums) and Reese
Wynans (keyboards). The cut also has a
horn section made up of Joe Sublett on sax and Darrell Leonard on trumpet.