Listen to this track by Detroit proto-punk progenitors MC5. It’s “The Motor City’s Burning”, a song that appears on their 1969 album Kick Out The Jams. The song was written by Al Smith, and previously recorded by no less than John Lee Hooker, making an appearance on Hooker’s Urban Blues live album in 1967.
That was the year that the riots which inspired this song occurred, in July and indeed at the corner of Clairmont and 12th street in Detroit. Given that both Hooker and The MC5 called Detroit home, this was more than just a blues tune full of violence and sadness, which it certainly is. It’s not even a protest song as such. It’s more like simple a view of the action, with no sides taken, but with a personal stake in the outcome all the same.
What is that personal stake? Well, it’s all tied up in the value of home, and from a band who are not only from Detroit, but who had attached their identity to it. Continue reading
Listen to this track by former Whiskytown principle turned 21st century roots-rock poster boy Ryan Adams. It’s “New York, New York”, a stormingly anthemic single as taken from his smash 2001 record Gold his second album as a solo artist.
Apart from the ambitious scope of the record that touches on a number of classic rock textures that reference Dylan, Van Morrison, The Band, and late ’60s Rolling Stones, it had time on its side, too. Released only a couple of weeks after New York made the news in a shocking and tragic manner during the events of September 11, 2001 , this song became a love song to a city during a very troubled and heartbreaking time.
The madness of these times was palpable, and this was an anathema, like a balm during a time that felt like the end of one era, and the beginning of a much darker one. The song won him a Grammy for best male rock vocal, and raised his profile among peers, critics, and record buyers. Yet, that darkness followed this song, impossible to separate from how celebratory it sounds due to that timing which could not be forseen. Amazingly, the video for this song was shot four days before the skyline of the city to which the song became a tribute would change forever.
Listen to this track by familial R&B vocal group from Philadelphia, Sister Sledge. It’s “We Are Family”, a signature tune from them as written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, who also play on it along with drummer Tony Thompson. All three are namechecked in the performance by lead singer Kathy Sledge. The song is taken from their 1979 album of the same name; We Are Family. This is the full length version of the song, which would otherwise appear in a three-minute and change radio edit.
This is a classic tune of the disco era. It’s an anthem to celebrate those who are singing it, a paean to sisterly bonds and to what is means to be a part of something greater than oneself – a family. It’s also something of an anthem to those who gathered in the clubs as a subculture of those not recognized by the mainstream yet made into a family of sorts by virtue of their disenfranchisement. But, really, anyone can see what this song is about, and can relate to it. No wonder it was such a hit.
The song would be one of Sister Sledge’s biggest hits, released in March of 1979 and scoring a #2 chart position on the Billboard 100 and a #1 showing on the R&B charts. This was after the single made headway in the clubs then into local and national radio play. Not bad for a song that the label was unsure about whether or not this would make any waves, hitwise. It was also something of an extra victory, considering that it was made to order for the group, even if Rodgers and Edwards hadn’t heard or seen them before the song was written. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Austin Texas blues-honky-tonk-rock trio Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble. It’s “Cold Shot” a hit single from their 1984 record Couldn’t Stand The Weather, their second as a band. Along with performing well chartwise, the video for it received heavy rotation as well, noted for its humour.
The song was written by W.C Clark, a local Austin blues legend, although by the early to mid-80s, Vaughn had made a name for himself in his own right. Vaughan had been a student of the blues since he was a kid, along with his older brother Jimmie Vaughan. This tune was one of several cover songs on the record, with other songs written by Guitar Slim, Jimmy Reed, and Jimi Hendrix. The blues in these primordial traditions was on the wane in many ways by the early 1980s as far as mainstream audiences went.
So, given that, how did Stevie Ray Vaughan get so big in that era? And, what does this tune represent in the middle of all of that? Continue reading
Listen to this track by supremely malleable musical concern from Washington D.C and now based in Massachusetts, Lilys. It’s “A Nanny In Manhattan”, a short and potent blast of out-of-time psychedelic pop as featured on 1996’s Better Can’t Make Your Life Better.
The success of this track was boosted by its use in a Levi’s jeans ad in the UK directed by Roman Coppola of all people. The ad exposed the band’s sound to a pretty big audience once it was re-released in 1998 after the ad had paved the way. The single reached #16 on the UK singles charts, which would be Lilys only top twenty showing. Not bad for a song that was meant to be a fill-in tune for what the advertisers wanted, that being something that sounded like the Small Faces without the royalty payment headaches.
Success in the UK top twenty was a long way away from where the band started. Well, I say band. I should say Lilys’ creative engine in sole principle Kurt Heasley and his rotating line-up of collaborators; over 72 members to date, according to Wikipedia. But, this above average (to say the least!) turnover wasn’t because he couldn’t keep a band together. So if not that, than what was the deal with Lilys anyway? Continue reading
Listen to this track by Massachusetts quartet tagged by many as “proto-punk” and fronted by one Jonathan Richman, The Modern Lovers. It’s “Roadrunner”, a song about driving with the radio on featured on the band’s 1976 eponymous debut record. It was released as a single, and would be recorded over Richman’s career a few times with the band and without. There are a few versions floating around, but this one is my favourite, produced by John Cale in 1972.
Besides that, the song is pure magic to the point that it is amazing to me that it even exists. In some ways, it’s totally amateurish. But, that’s a big part of its charm. When Richman counts off “1,2,,3,4,5,6 …” you know you’re in for something eccentric and cool all at once. Unlike a lot of Jonathan Richman songs, this one is aligned with an expected rock ‘n’ roll subject; driving at night with the radio on, in love with rock ‘n’ roll and being out all night. But, it’s also about being in love with the place you’re from. In Richman’s case, that’s the state of Massachusetts, and the scenery along the way.
This is a song that’s been hailed by many as the first punk song. Where I don’t think I can agree with that (I personally think it was “Louie Louie” myself …), I can understand why people think that. This song has roots that are well known. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Vancouverite indie quintet Said The Whale. It’s “Emerald Lake AB”, a shining gem as taken from their 2009 record Islands Disappear, their second.
The band formed in Vancouver and very soon became recognized as being an important addition to the scene after their initial release Talking Abalonia in 2007. From there, they scored awards locally and eventually on a national scale, too. Being on that level in Canada, they had two agenda points to cover.
The first point was the business of selling to America. Every band in this country who is looking for a wider audience has to consider that goal; it’s an economy of scale thing. Their involvement in the 2011 documentary Winning America was a snapshot of their efforts on that front at SXSW. They subsequently made headway with their recent 2013 album Hawaii, and with the single “I Love You” charting in the States.
But, what about that second agenda point? Well, that’s the one this song seems to capture best. Continue reading