photo: Peter Castleton
The Mayan Calendar. Rumours of the Rapture. Rod Stewart’s new Christmas album. All of them have been recently featured in the news over the past few years to make us wonder whether or not the end is nigh. Well, maybe the Rod album only makes me wonder that.
Anyway, as established with our 10 songs about death list, we can all agree that one day everything meets its end. This of course must include civilization as we know it; the end of the world. But, maybe making civilization and “the world” synonymous is just human arrogance. After all, the world existed before we came along, right?
And yet we’re a species that’s marked with a blessing, or is it a curse: we know that the end is coming. Maybe it’s both.
So, as a result, songwriters have taken it on. And how has it turned out?
Well, here’s 10 songs about doomsday in several possible forms. Sometimes, it really is about the end of everything. At other times, its about endings that just seem like the end of everything from a certain point of view. But, with all of them, it’s about confrontation with a force that we have to deal with whether we’re at the end of the line or not; our own humanity.
Take a look.
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Listen to this track by Motown wunderkind and soul pop auteur Stevie Wonder. It’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love With You It Will Be Forever)”, the closing track of his 1972 record Talking Book.
That album was almost dead center in the inarguable purple patch of records Wonder would create in the early ’70s, wedged between Music Of My Mind, and Innervisions, while still managing to rival those albums as among the best examples of his work. And this was a highlight among highlights, with a co-authorship by Yvonne Wright, his then sister-in-law.
The song would be covered by a wide range of artists on the pop spectrum, from Peter Frampton, to Art Garfunkel, to George Michael, to Petra Haden, to Josh Groban. This could be because it’s one of those sweeping pop songs, full of the glory of idealized love, with plenty of room for singers to stretch out their chops.
But, there’s more to this tune then being a showstopper, which it is of course. Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this track by Tennessean songwriter and true rags to riches tale in the flesh Dolly Parton. It’s “Coat of Many Colors” as taken from the 1971 album that references it, Joshua & the Coat of Many Colors. The story is a childhood tale, touching on a number of themes. But, one of the big ones is that of a mother’s love. On the week just before Mother’s Day here in North America (in Britain, it’s in March, friends), that’s a pretty top-of-mind theme for many.
The song was a standout on the record, and released as a single where it reached a #4 position on the country charts. It would later go on the be extensively covered by a variety of artists from Billy Connoly to Shania Twain, to Dolly Parton herself. It would become something of an anthem to the region out of which it came as well. It seems that there were a lot of hard-working mothers supporting families, which maybe why the themes of strong mothers carried this song to success.
But, this song touches on other themes besides, with the rare feat of doing justice to all of them.
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Listen to this track by British folk paragon and singer-songwriter Bridget St. John. It’s “A Day A Way” the opening track as taken from her 1971 album Songs For The Gentle Man which, as Wikipedia puts it best, “propelled her to cult status in the United Kingdom”. I love that: propelled her to cult status.
It’s not like this record went under the radar of some key influencers at the time. None other than John Peel was a major supporter in a variety of capacities. Her first three records, including this one, came out on his Dandelion label. And he produced her debut Ask Me No Questions, and arranged several Peel sessions. According to a piece in July 2006 issue of MOJO magazine, he even shouted down a loutish crowd so that she could be heard during an early tour before she recorded her first record. If only Peel had been there to do the same when Nick Drake toured.
And speaking of Drake, St. John played with him in Le Cousins, a folk club in Soho in London. They had a common friend in John Martyn who was something of a mentor to St. John when it came to the guitar. Much like both men mentioned, she unlocked her melodic sense when it came to songwriting by way of open tunings, and with a flurry of natural imagery in her lyrics. This is not to mention that patented melancholy that makes her work so compelling, and so tied to the British folk sound of the time.
But, there’s something unique to be found in this song, and St. John’s work in general. Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this track by one-time Only Band That Mattered, the one and only The Clash. It’s “Safe European Home” as taken from the band’s second record Give ‘Em Enough Rope, released in November of 1978. The song recounts the return of an English tourist from “the land of Bluebeat“, that being Jamaica, and the change in perspective that the trip has created.
The whole thing is delivered by what is now known as the classic Clash line-up; Joe Strummer singing and playing rhythm guitar, Mick Jones singing and playing lead guitar, Paul Simonon on bass, and joining them for the first time, Topper Headon on drums. This is also the classic punk rock sound on which they built their reputation, although it’s filtered through the growing expectations of CBS, and their producer Sandy Pearlman. The sessions were strained, by some accounts. Yet, The Clash had a voice like no other band at the time, which shows through gloriously here.
They would expand their sound greatly in short order beyond this bedrock set of musical aesthetics established here. But, the core sound of the Clash is solidified here in any case; call and response oriented vocal dynamics, bluntly effective guitarwork, and an impressive, almost R&B feel between bassist Simonon and drummer Headon.
This song also touches on a classic Clash theme, specifically that of authenticity, although in a way that works against many of their other songs that deal with that same theme.
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Listen to this track by Animalistic, leaping gnome-like singer Eric Burdon as backed by Latin-influenced Long Beach L.A funkateers War. It’s “Spill The Wine”, a 1970 hit as featured on the collaborative and self-referentially titled album Eric Burdon Declares War. It was initially released as a single, scoring a top ten chart result.
The song bridges the gaps between British rock, R&B, and Latin music, with a long portion of it being something of a spoken-word short story. That story is a rather dreamlike excursion, filled with images of tall grass, afternoon naps, dreams, Hollywood movies, and visions of “every kind of girl”. There aren’t too many tunes like it. Since its release, it’s been featured on soundtracks in movies and on TV, and covered by a number of artists from The Isley Brothers, to Michael Hutchence.
War was an outfit that started out as a socio-political concern, with statements against racism, crime, poverty, and other negative forces that were becoming serious issues in their native Los Angeles. Eric Burdon had moved to the West Coast from Britain after having dissolved the second incarnation of the Animals, with the original group having split by the mid-60s. In some ways, it was kind of an odd pairing, with Burdon being a student of Chicago blues, and War being more of a funk outfit who’d left the blues behind for a more contemporary Latin R&B funk hybrid sound.
But, “Spill The Wine” consolidated their success, and with an approach that was stylistically off the map in many ways. Here are a few of them. Read the rest of this entry
Here’s a clip of British blues-rock good ol’ boys when they’re asleep, the Faces. It’s “Richmond” a track that appears on their 1971 record Long Player. This performance is from Top of The Pops that very same year.
Rod Stewart sang lead on many of the band’s tunes. But in this clip, that’s him playing rudimentary stand-up bass. This track was written and led by singer, bassist, and guitarist Ronnie Lane, AKA ‘Plonk’ who was born this day in 1946. He would have been 67 today.
Lane died in 1997 of a debilitating and drawn out fight with multiple sclerosis. But, before his death, he was a valued, and well-liked musician among everyone in the upper tiers of his generation of musicians. But, beyond being a rock ‘n’ roll mensch, what else did Ronnie Lane bring to the table?
Let’s start with this tune.
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Here’s a clip of L.A-based orchestral pop meets the hymn book singer-songwriter Judee Sill. It’s “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” a deep-cut featured on her 1971 self-titled record Judee Sill. It would be only one of two records that would be released during her lifetime.
Like many of her songs, this one just bursts with spiritual longing carried by a melody that flows like honey, while also falling between the cracks of standard musical pigeonholes. Luckily for Sill, a boom in contemplative singer-songwriters was happening around the time she was writing songs. So she was the first to be signed to David Geffen’s now-famous Asylum label, home to many now associated with the era of classic confessional songwriting centered around Los Angeles.
Of course, Judee Sill took a less than conventional path to being signed to a successful record label. She pursued her career after a teenaged period of getting into trouble, landing herself in reform schools, and using hard drugs. Songwriting was her way out.
And with that in mind, it’s a wonder that her music doesn’t sound more jaded. In fact, it sounds completely the opposite. As evidenced by “Lopin’ Along Through The Cosmos”, this is the voice of an idealist, a dreamer who perhaps doesn’t expect the best, but hopes for it anyway. And Judee Sill certainly had reason to doubt it. Read the rest of this entry
During the history of modern pop music and jazz, there have been those with the ability to take music that is potentially great and make it great by sheer force of talent. A lot of these people are names that we recognize today, because along with sterling musicianship and songwriting, fame often follows. But, they don’t get there on their own. The stars of the show have the advantage of side musicians, who are in the role of support, adding texture and personality to any material put in front of them.
Yet, often the people in these supporting roles don’t often have a proportionate share in the fame that often comes out of the fruits of their labours. Sure, liner notes-reading music obsessives might know them. And maybe in certain professional circles their names are known. But, for the most part it’s their playing, their signature sound, or their use of specialized instruments that make the material more well-known than they themselves are. And maybe that’s just indicative of how well they’ve done their job.
But, who are these people? Well, there are a lot of them over fifty years in the modern pop era to account for; the unsung heroes that have raised songwriters and performers with whom they’ve worked up from the level of mere mortals, and into the upper echelons of cultural avatars. Here’s 10 (well, technically 12!) such names, with some of the songs for which they are (not always) known, submitted here for your pleasure.
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Listen to this track by British glam-rock vehicle Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel. It’s Harley’s biggest hit “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)”, a UK chart smash in February 1975, and equally well received in Europe and in Australia. It appears on the LP The Best Years of Our Lives, their best selling record.
For many, this song is a sonic time machine, taking the listener straight back to the last days of the British glam-rock heyday, and a hair’s breadth from the dawn of punk rock. Thanks to being so tied into the consciousness of a generation of listeners, it would be re-released a number of times over the years, enjoying resurgence after resurgence, in part thanks to its inclusion in movie soundtracks (The Full Monty, Velvet Goldmine, and others) and in British TV commercials, too.
Ironically, Harley’s most popular song came out of circumstances that were less about his enduring success as a songwriter, and more about his career coming to an end as he knew it.
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