Listen to this track by soulful R&B crossover hitmakers The Spinners, sometimes known as The Detroit Spinners. It’s “They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play)”, a hit single from their 1975 album Pick Of The Litter. The song was a hit on the pop and the R&B charts that year, with lots of AM radio play during the short time between the end of the classic soul era and the dawn of disco.
The Spinners came out of Detroit in the days before Motown was founded, and just before rock ‘n’ roll had united a common audience all over the country and the world. They had formed on the cusp of a new musical era, when all manner of gospel-based singing groups began to explore the idea of creating a secular version of church vocal music, later to be known as soul.
But, it would be the seventies in which they would make their biggest mark as a group by delivering the coveted crossover hit, and by exemplifying a new style of soul music altogether.
Listen to this track by mercurial singer-songwriter who likes a good jam as much as the next guy, Bob Dylan. It’s “Jokerman” a cut that is featured on his 1983 record Infidels. On that album, the song is presented in a tasteful reggae-seasoned arrangement. But, Bob being Bob, when it came time to play it on David Letterman in March of 1984, he had other ideas.
Bob was living in Malibu around this time, and still very interested in exploring some musical alchemy with local musicians. I imagine the ride he’d been trying to get off since his early days as a would-be folk-rock messiah had a lot to do with that, trying to stretch himself as a player and a performer as the times were beginning to do some a-changin’ as the eighties began in earnest. Among some of the attendees at Bob’s house jams during this period was bassist Tony Marsico and drummer Charlie Quintana of the L.A punk band The Plugz, the first recognized Latino punk band active in a field of mostly white groups on that scene, and who in fact had gone indie during a time when that wasn’t really a thing yet, forming their own record label. The alchemy Bob sought must have become adequately manifest by their gumption, but also their playing.
In short order along with punkily-monikered guitarist Justin Jesting (aka J.J Holiday) , they were to be Dylan’s backing group on the Letterman appearance. The performance would be both a triumph and a tragedy in equal measure. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Brit-pop rear guard band and early to mid-nineties music industry case-study Sleeper. It’s “Sale Of The Century”, a top ten hit from 1996’s The It Girl. Even if they never made a record as big or as era-defining as Parklife, let’s say, this album is looked upon as their definitive statement during the height of the Brit-pop period, a bona fide platinum-selling record. This one is my favourite of their singles, of which they had eight in the top twenty during their tenure together before the end of the decade.
Sleeper formed at just the right time, and were active on the local scenes in London just as one era was ticking over into another. A record deal seemed to materialize before their eyes. But, by the time “Sale Of The Century” came around, they’d been on the scene playing the parts of jaded pop stars for a year and a half, touring with Blur, REM, and later with Elvis Costello & The Attractions. “Sale Of The Century” can be viewed in a different way when one considers their trajectory, and the mindset of lead singer Louise Wener as the writer and central figure in the eye of their particular storm. Continue reading
Listen to this track by East L.A rock ‘n’ roll and Tex-Mex paragons Los Lobos. It’s “Don’t Worry Baby”, a blues-steeped workout that is featured on their 1984 album How Will The Wolf Survive?
Given that their name has a definite lupine association, that question was certainly pertinent to a group of otherwise regular guys playing music during the height of the MTV era. In the meantime, they had just scraped enough together after their EP … And A Time To Dance to buy a van and do a proper tour of the United States on their own steam after opening for Public Image, Ltd in the early eighties. The gambit seemed to pay off, with the band gaining traction and industry attention to record this, their first major label full-length record in the summer of 1984, with the help of the meticulous production ear of T-Bone Burnett, who also co-wrote this song.
This tune is infused with several musical streams the band were exposed to before forming in East L.A in the early 1970s as high school kids. The overall effect is a sort of bluesy rockabilly feel that not many in the mainstream were putting forward on top forty radio by 1984. Even the title of the song seems to be self-reflexive of their situation, being a singular group with no proven template for success to follow outside of their own identity as a band. So, how indeed would the wolf survive? Continue reading
Listen to this track by message music maven and one-time Staple Singer Mavis Staples. It’s “Fight” a brand new single as taken from her 2015 EP Your Good Fortune. The EP was produced by none other than Anti-Records labelmate Son Little, also an artist with a feel for music with a message. This song is a kind of artistic mobius strip, with one artist who followed in the footsteps of another making footsteps of his own for her to follow. Saying that, there is more than just a turnaround between two artists with a similar set of motivations.
“Fight” seems to capture the anger related to any number of systemic aggressions against black people specifically and poor people in general as perpetrated by those who’s job it is to protect them. These events have alerted us to a social crisis that is not isolated to a few areas in our society. Songs about struggle and rage are appropriate in 2015 to say the least. I think essential may be the more precise word.
Listen to this track by Hamiltonian singer-songwriter and guitarist Terra Lightfoot. It’s “Never Will”, a storming track as taken from her second record Every Time My Mind Runs Wild. Nurtured by a pile of classic rock and pop records, and by roots heroes that may account for a distinct R&B meets folk- influenced swagger you can hear on this song, this tune is a concoction of indie rock approach meeting blues-stomp cajones.
Terra Lightfoot, who is in fact not related to one of Canada’s most famous Gordons, has honed her craft while on stages shared with that particular Gordon, along with others like Ron Sexsmith, Sloan, Arkells, and Daniel Lanois among many others. Taking her craft very seriously, the songs on this new record were written and heavily re-written, partially with thanks to the lessons laid down by those others as represented by that aforementioned pile of classic rock records.
The musical DNA of a those albums that served as examples to Lightfoot’s craft can’t be traced with any real precision here. But, the raw power that created them sure can be. Continue reading
Joni Mitchell stands in a class by herself.
She is too often irritatingly referred to as a sort of “female Bob Dylan”, which still makes my hackles rise and keeps my gag reflex in good working order. Nothing against Bob, of course. But, the two artists are not to be compared, least of all while using the tag of “female” as a modifier, and ultimately as a way to reduce her significance on the basis of gender. I will say no more about it (maybe).
Hailing from the Canadian prairies, Mitchell took her art to the folk scenes of Calgary, Toronto, Detroit, New York, and eventually to La-La land and the Laurel Canyon scene starting in the 1960s and on through the 1970s. She started off with a girl-with-guitar hippie-chick image, where she has often stayed in the minds of the uninitiated. But, Mitchell’s work is expansive and fearless well beyond labels or eras, even from her earliest period. Lately, she’s made the headlines because of her ill-health, and also due to her rather cantankerous attitudes having to do with the music industry as well as toward her contemporaries.
But, it is her art that remains to be her strongest and most vital voice, sometimes with that cantankerous outlook built in, sometimes not. And as such, I hereby present ten tracks of Joni, ten musical beacons in a galaxy of bright points that measure her unique and far-reaching artistic journey. Some are hits, while others are simply examples of her fearlessness in an industry in which she thrived, and against which struggled in equal measure.