Listen to this track by golden-throated singer-songwriter and soon-to-be Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Harry Nilsson. It’s “Turn On Your Radio”, a deep-cut from his 1972 album Son of Schmilsson. The record is a self-consciously-titled follow-up to his Nilsson Schmilsson album, which is his biggest selling record to date.
By 1972, Nilsson had scored a number of successes, with seven records behind him, songs on mainstream movie soundtracks, and songs of his covered by other artists. Also, Nilsson had made a lot of friends by then, and had won a number of celebrity fans too, some of whom helped him realize his musical goals during the sessions. This included two Beatles — Ringo Starr (credited as “Ritchie Snare”) on drums, and George Harrison playing his signature slide guitar. Later on of course, he’d have another Beatle in his inner circle; John Lennon, who helped Nilsson drink a lot of Brandy Alexanders at the Troubadour Club. But, that’s another story!
Beyond that, this song illustrates the magnitude of Nilsson’s talent by then. He was able to strike a balance that few songwriters were able to do, between sumptuousness and simplicity. Lyrically too, this song seems to hit two chords at the same time. Continue reading
Listen to this track by British singer-songwriter, poet, essayist, and all-around musical genre defier Labi Siffre. It’s “Watch Me”, a single on the Polydor label released onto the UK charts with a top thirty placement in 1972. That year, he would also release his third album, Crying Laughing Loving Lying.
Before his recording career as a solo artist began in the 1970, Labi Siffre was a jobbing musician in the jazz clubs of Soho in London in the 1960s. His music would be delivered in two separate stages. First, he would put out six albums from 1970 to 1975. Later, he would retire as a recording artist, only to return in the mid-eighties, and make four more records by the end of the nineties. His work would be covered by acts ranging from Madness, who had a top ten hit with Siffre’s “It Must Be Love”, to Rod Stewart who would record “Crying Laughing Loving Lying”. His music has since been sampled by Eminem, Kanye West, Jay Z, and Primal Scream.
In this early part of his career, he would become known in England as a writer of great depth and dimension to be compared to many of his contemporaries who had come out of similar scenes including Joan Armatrading, Cat Stevens, and Al Stewart. This song is a prime example of what he was able to do; write towering love songs full of beaming optimism without any hint of soppiness or hackeyed sentiment of any kind. He would also make a point of breaking down all kinds of barriers, both of a musical and of a personal nature. Continue reading
Listen to this track from Avant garde tenor player with a soft side Pharaoh Sanders. It’s “Astral Traveling”, a track as taken off of his 1971 LP Thembi. This record catches Sanders during what many consider to be his prime period. But, instead of stretching out for side-long excursions into tempestuous and ferocious whirlwinds of sound, this record is more varied, and with more bite-sized track lengths, not to mention moments of serenity and lyricism. Maybe it was because the record was named after Sanders’ wife. But, it largely deals in subtlety and sonic variation, as opposed to the crashing assault for which much of his work is generally known.
This album is actually the product of two different sessions. Like many jazz records toward the end of the sixties and into the seventies, these sessions were edited into a whole at the production stage instead of being recorded right off of the floor as is. This doesn’t mean that the record was without spontaneity or the spirit of experimentation. In fact, this very track can certainly be considered experimental, even if it is pastoral in equal measure. Continue reading
Listen to this track by gravelly-voiced troubadour and downtown Saturday night mythologist Tom Waits. It’s “I Wish I Was In New Orleans”, a sumptuous tune as taken from his 1976 album, Small Change. The album was recorded quickly in the last two weeks of July of that year.
This record represents a high point in Waits’ initial foray into a unique and signature take on the emerging singer-songwriter “genre”of the early-to-mid-seventies, in Waits’ case complete with heavy jazz flourishes and hard-boiled lyrical imagery to go along with his distinctive and texturally complex singing voice. Additionally, some high profile West Coast Jazz musicians back him up on this one, including renowned drummer Shelly Manne who’s intricate brushwork is a highlight through out, coupled with warm acoustic bass, and a lot (a lot!) of tenor saxophone that provides an effective musical foil to Waits’ voice.
“I Wish I Was In New Orleans” includes this jazz dynamic, but centers on Waits’ piano and voice, contrasted with a string arrangement that seems to weep with melancholy. On this one, you can almost see Waits leaning in close to the microphone while hunched at the piano, eyes closed and brow furrowed. This has always been one of his strengths; vivid and wholly embodied performances, even on a studio recording. It’s not just the arrangements, the playing, and the production we get, either. It’s another element that is common to many successful singer-songwriters and bands of that era — the evocation of a mythological world within the music. In this case, it’s a world that is in the process passing, or has passed entirely. Continue reading
Listen to this track by earth-moving intergalactic funk pioneers Parliament. It’s “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”, aka “Star Child (Mothership Connection)”, the second track and third single off of 1975’s Mothership Connection and released in August of 1976.
This record was their second full-length album in the same year, following up Chocolate City which was released in the spring of 1975. That earlier album created a mythology that placed black culture in the mainstream, and in the literal seats of power in the United States where in real life it was absent; the white house and the Lincoln memorial as depicted on its cover. With the follow-up in Mothership Connection, lead creative mind George Clinton decided to make the presence of black people and culture known in another sphere where they had largely (Star Trek excepted) also been absent; in the stars, and the realm of science fiction. This led to an even more potent mythology and set of imagery for which Clinton and his various projects would become best known; a comic book-style world of outer space.
In some ways, Clinton’s child-like vision that frames the music here was the antithesis of much of funk-soul music at the time. It’s fun and full of abandon instead of political and earnest. And yet, with this approach, it was political in its own way, just by challenging the expectations of the mainstream, and helping to change perspectives on the role of black voices in the wider culture at the time. Continue reading
The cover version, as I’ve said so many times, should bring something new to the listener that they can’t get from the original. It’s a good general rule. There are perfunctory cover versions anyway, of course. And there are ones that you think couldn’t possibly work, and yet they do and sometimes gloriously so!
But, what of the cover version that seems to have been inevitable? What of the ones that appeared to have been waiting for the artist to take it in their arms and give it some sweet musical lovin’? I’m not talking about predictability here. No. I’m talking about that “of course!” factor; of course that artist recorded that song. It was made for them, even if they didn’t write it, or record it first!
Well, here are ten of those; songs that silently demanded that they be covered by the given artist, and that the artist framed the song in such a way as to bring out personality traits in it that weren’t obvious before, true to their own personalities and previous works. Some were big hits. Some were only minor entries into the charts. Some were little-known live versions or bonus tracks. But beside all those details, with each one comes the feeling to a listener that a sense of resolution has been revealed, that because each of these cover versions exist, finally the cosmic tumblers have fallen into place. Proceed!
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Listen to this track by London-born, Deepcut Surrey raised singer-songwriter and original angry young man Graham Parker, along with his crack team of pub rock compatriots, The Rumour. It’s a hot should-have-been-huge single “Local Girls”, featured on Rolling Stone’s retroactively appreciative top 500 albums of all time record Squeezing Out Sparks, produced by none other than Jack Nitzsche, arranger and one-time co-orchestrator to Phil Spectre in the 1960s.
Before his career as a musician with an unbeatable backing band on the pub rock scene in London, Graham Parker was a wanderer, travelling to various places, and working different jobs while his ambitions as a full-time songwriter and touring musician were percolating.
That’s why I think “Local Girls” is less about a disdain for women at bus stops, and more about finding a personal sense of location for a songwriter from a small town.