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.
Listen to this track by Jamaican soul singer, reggae innovator and sometime actor Jimmy Cliff. It’s “Many Rivers To Cross”, a song of hardship and burden in a true gospel style as featured prominently on 1972’s The Harder They Come soundtrack.
This record is perhaps one of the earliest that served as a collection of songs featured in a movie that also turned out to be an essential addition to any respectable record collection while it was at it. It also had the distinction of having the star of the movie as one of the contributors to it; Jimmy Cliff himself. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Ottawa-born former folk-psych guitarist turned mystical folkie singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Let Us Go Laughing”, the centerpiece to his 1971 album High Winds, White Sky, his second.
This song is a culmination of where Cockburn had come by this time in his career. Behind him were his days at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied jazz improvisation and composition in the mid-sixties. Also behind him was his journeyman period as a guitar player and keyboardist in folk rock and psych bands, some of which appeared as opening acts for The Lovin’ Spoonful, Cream, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience by the end of that decade.
But something else had risen to the surface by the time this song was written; a feel for lyrics that reflected his rich inner life and his gravitation toward the spiritual.
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