Listen to this track by West Saugerties, NY house-renters and former backing group turned turned 20th Century music innovators The Band. It’s “Chest Fever”, a track as taken from their 1968 debut record Music From Big Pink.
The album was named affectionately after the house in which much of the group’s early material was written, now famously known in rock lore as one of the first “clubhouse” style recording set-ups that would produce their fruitful Basement Tapes sessions with Bob Dylan when they were still a nameless band transitioning out of their days as The Hawks.
Their work during these sessions showed that world-changing rock music didn’t have to be created in a professional studio while someone else’s clock is ticking. It would also allow them space to explore other musical avenues and modes of narrative, and to push the possibilities of what rock music could be for everyone while they were at it. It would set the tone for an approach that would carry over even when they came to record their debut in a formal studio setting, working with sympathetic producer John Simon, under their new name The Band.
This is a tune that would burn like a beacon on a landmark debut record, and distinguish itself among some of the best in the group’s catalog. It would also diverge from the carefully constructed approach to songwriting for which the Band is now known in distinct, unique ways.
Listen to this track by primo-prog pioneers and art rock template setters King Crimson. It’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, the title track from their 1969 debut record In The Court of the Crimson King. That record set the standard of approach to expansive musical ambition when it came to making rock records, later to be recognized as one of the primary albums that “built prog rock”.
Indeed, this band established the idea of creating artistic statements in the rock vein while avoiding established American R&B influences, and turning to classical and other European ingredients instead. Rather than coming from the gospel churches of the American south, this music is more aligned with the liturgical grandness of the Church of England. This record is where it all began where prog rock is concerned.
This was the first incarnation of the band; Robert Fripp on guitar, Greg Lake singing and playing bass, Michael Giles on drums and percussion, and Ian McDonald on multiple instruments, including the mellotron. It’s this last texture which is so important on this song, giving it an eerily orchestral, and portentous atmosphere.
I think it serves not only as an aural element that would go on to define a genre. But, it also serves the narrative as written by lyricist Pete Sinfield, which is one that matches the mythical with the political.
In the light of that, who is the Crimson King anyway?
Listen to this track by towering spiritual saxophonist and jazz immortal John Coltrane. It’s “Psalm”, the last movement in his 1965 magnum opus A Love Supreme.
The track, along with the rest of the record was recorded with what is now known as his classic quartet; Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums. With the almost psychic connection between these musicians, the whole record gels gloriously, coming to be what it was intended to be; a statement of ultimate gratitude by its author.
But, before the music was laid down on an album that is now considered to be Coltrane’s artistic pinnacle, it required one thing before it could be born: solitude. (more…)
Listen to this track by former mop-top British Invasion spearheads and pop music boundary pushers The Beatles. It’s “A Day In The Life” as taken from the modestly successful little platter Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released at the top of the summer of love in June 1967.
By the time work was undertaken to begin the making of this song, and this record, the rules hadn’t really been written as to what an album could be – like, say, a way to create a band inside of a band, and to have the record itself do the job of touring instead of the people behind it having to do it. No one had ever really applied an artistic filter to a record, or to a band in quite this way.
As such, it was a risky approach. There again, the Beatles records always sold well, and I’m sure the project wasn’t thought of as being risky other than by those who undertook it, and who wanted it to be as great as it was on a musical level. The stories around that album, and this track specifically, are fairly well-traveled. But, there is one common thread running through all of those stories; everything about the project drove everyone involved in making it deep into a place of artistic and technological lateral thinking .
Personally, I think the biggest force behind the record’s success didn’t have anything to do with lofty and unifying artistic concepts or technological innovation. I think it had more to do with an honest expression of where the Beatles were at during that time as it was expressed in the songwriting. ”A Day In The Life” was one of the first songs the band tackled, helping to set the tone and expectations surrounding the project as a whole.
As such, it’s always seemed kind of ironic to me that this final track on an album that is otherwise thought of as the most technicolour of all Beatles records is so full of forboding.
Listen to this track by incomparable High Priestess of Soul herself Nina Simone. It’s “Sinnerman”, a traditional gospel-blues song of misty and mysterious origins as captured on her 1965 record Pastel Blues. The song closed that record, an epic length encapsulation of nothing less than the Fall of Humanity, the hope for redemption, and the fear of damnation.
Covering this tune was likely a product of Simone’s upbringing in the church. But, it is also likely that “Sinnerman” was well-covered on the Greenwich Village folk scene, of which Simone was also a part. The Weavers recorded a version of it, which may have been responsible for it being something of a standard of the ’60s folk boom. It has since become a well-covered standard across a number of musical spectrums.
This one is the real thing; over ten minutes long, and with Simone’s full-powers behind it, and making it her own. It would have an impact well after this version was recorded. (more…)
Listen to this track by Anglocentric, conceptually-minded Brit-pop forseers The Kinks. It’s “Victoria”, a single as taken from their 1969 album Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire). After a distinguished purple patch of singles, and a slight dip, this was a return to the Billboard charts.
In many ways, The Kinks are the forefathers of Brit-pop more so than the Beatles. Like their ’90s progeny, they dealt in decidedly British themes and presented material through an English cultural lens at a time when gaining an American following was so vital, and so very expected of every rock band coming out of England in the early-to-mid 1960s. Many would get there in varying degrees. The Kinks would, too – eventually. But, the Beatles/Stones/Who triumvirate would shut them out of the top three places in the minds of record buyers in North America at the time.
Arguably, this was down to a Kinks ban in America at just the wrong time; from 1965 until the end of the decade when the American charts were the most receptive to British bands, and just when their classic line-up (with Pete Quaife on bass) was active. There are a number of theories as to the reasons for the ban, ranging from the alienation of prominent promoters, to their volatile on-stage behaviour (before Oasis, there was the Kinks …), to not paying dues to the appropriate American unions.
So how did they survive, and actually thrive, under these conditions? (more…)
Listen to this track by lyrical singer-songwriter who had Beatles for fans Harry Nilsson. It’s “One”, a song taken from his 1968 record Aerial Ballet, his second album. The song would be covered and become better known by Three Dog Night in the next decade. It would later appear in another form as covered by Aimee Mann for the soundtrack for the film Magnolia. That’s just a start to the list of those who would cover the song over a span of years.
The tune’s bright and cheery keyboard line hides an undercurrent of melancholy even musically speaking before the lyrics kick in to reinforce the themes of isolation and distance. You’ll notice that descending chordal motif that would also be the hallmark of another songwriter, John Lennon.
Lennon was an early fan of Nilsson’s, as were the other Beatles. This may be because like them, Nilsson wrote catchy tunes that held incredible dimension when viewed from different angles. This is one of the best examples of that quality.
Maybe this knack of Nilsson’s came from his background in singing jingles, while he wasn’t holding down a fairly late-in-the-day job as a bank clerk even after his first album hit the charts in 1967. (more…)
The Beatles established the idea for British beat groups that if you wanted to make your mark, you had to write your own songs.
But, before they were writers, they were music fans and record collectors – just like us! They had influences, like any other band. In their earliest days, The Beatles considered themselves primarily as a rock ‘n’ roll band. But, they pulled in a number of influences that allowed them to define their sound even early on; soul music, rockabilly, traditional pop, movie soundtrack music, Latin music, and more.
A lot of the time, their choice in material was made so as to distinguish their sets from those of other bands working the same clubs as they did. And it also served them as a live act when they were a bar band in Hamburg, playing eight-hour shows. To play sets that long, you’ve got to cover a lot of ground, and make sure you’re ready to play anything for the sometimes volatile audiences. More material is better than less in those situations; better to know it and not have to play it, than having to play it, and not knowing it.
What this anything goes approach also helped them to do of course is to create a template for how wide their reach would be as songwriters on their own. So, which songs did they cover that helped them to do this best? Well, in the tradition of the Delete Bin, here are 10 to consider as great Beatle-starters, and as prime cuts of pure pop magic all on their own. Take a look! (more…)
Listen to this track by super-stylin’ three-sided jazz force of nature The Oscar Peterson Trio, led by the aforementioned ivory-tinkling Montrealer Oscar Peterson. It’s “Night Train” the title track from the classic 1962 release of the same name – Night Train. Peterson is joined on this by one-time Mr. Ella Fitzgerald and acoustic bass colossus Ray Brown, and supernaturally slick drummer Ed Thigpen.
When the song was recorded for Peterson’s record, it was aimed at the charts specifically by producer, and former Verve owner Norman Grantz. That’s why it doesn’t stretch out as much as some jazz tunes of the era. It’s the length of pop song that would get play on early ’60s radio, perhaps like a song like “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck had done. And it certainly was a big success for Oscar Peterson, being one of the most recognized records he’d put out during a long and celebrated career.
But, this tune and the record it comes off of holds a special place in my heart during my teenage discovery of jazz. And I know I’m not the only one. (more…)
Listen to this track by Sheffieldian blues-rock exemplar Joe Cocker, who today turns 69. It’s “Feeling Alright” as taken from Cocker’s 1969 record With A Little Help From My Friends. The album is well-named, given the range of talent that went into its creation, taking Cocker’s own formidable talents as a given. Among the many contributors to the record as a whole include Jimmy Page, Stevie Winwood, Tony Visconti, Henri McCulloch, and Chris Stainton, among others.
On this track, a cover version of Dave Mason’s song that first was heard by Traffic, Carol Kaye holds down the bottom end on bass guitar, David Cohen on guitar, Paul Humphrey on drums, and Artie Butler on the piano. It’s Butler’s ivory-tinkling that really stands out here, balanced against Cocker’s gruff and impossibly soulful vocals. It’s hard to believe that Butler would make his name later on as a musical director for Barry Manilow and Neil Sedaka, among other middle-of-the-road acts. But, there you are.
The concoction made for one of the most memorable songs of the era, eclipsing the original and creating a template for many versions to follow. This isn’t a bad feat for an interpretive singer at a time when interpreters were making less and less impact covering the material of others – although Cocker would pen tunes on the record as well. So, what’s the difference here? (more…)