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.
Listen to this track by proto-punk poet and her merry band of garage rock enthusiasts The Patti Smith Group. It’s “Gloria”, the opening track to their 1975 record Horses. That album would be a reflection of their work that melded fifties beat generation poetry with sixties garage rock music.
This song is the embodiment of that mix, taking a poem that Smith had performed for years called “Oath”, and fusing it to the 1965 garage rock classic by Them, which makes this a quasi cover version of sorts. It’s almost as though, in a time before sampling was formalized in the way we know it today, this piece was manually sampled. It was an effort at trying to tie the deeper questions of life to something that was just as common; a love of rock ‘n’ roll radio. It was also a way to tie it directly to the experiences of her generation.
Where is all of this pointing toward? Something that looks at lot like a search outside of that which had always been accepted as fact by the generation that came before. That’s what makes this so punk rock. Continue reading
Listen to this track by gospel music fan and one-time “topical” singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who recently had another birthday; he’s 74! It’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”, his 1979 hit single that would represent the last time to date he’d have a song in the top 40. This one reached #24 on the Billboard 100 upon its release in August of 1979.
The song was also featured on his new record, Slow Train Coming, a work that reflected his philosophical shift toward evangelical Christianity. It was the beginning of the Gospel Bob period! As such, it was something of a controversial release, with many of the songs on the album taking on a strident and spiritually polemical tone, tinged with a religiosity that seemed to be antithetical to the rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic. Dylan had always been something of a mercurial figure who seemed committed to undercutting expectations at every turn. But, even the session musicians who played on this track, and producer Jerry Wexler, were taken aback by Dylan’s new worldview. It was something of a surprise to Dylan’s peers, too. John Lennon of course wrote “Serve Yourself” in direct response to this tune. Many fans held the same point of view as Lennon on Bob’s gospel trip.
Yet, with this song that won him a Grammy for Best Male Vocal that year, there are elements here that had been a part of Dylan’s songwriting style all along, even celebrated in his earliest work. Continue reading
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.
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.