Listen to this track by one-time Woodstock New York homeowner, family man, and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. It’s “Man In Me”, a cut as taken from his 1970 album New Morning.
This record was something of a comeback record for Dylan, who had released two rather unexpected albums previous to its release. The first was Nashville Skyline, which was a collection of short country songs sung in a voice that very few immediately recognized as Dylan the singer. And then he released Self Portrait, an album that few would recognize as coming from Dylan the songwriter.
But all the while, Dylan had other things on his mind. One was trying to figure out how to stop being Bob Dylan as other people understood him. And this song would be one his most revealing to date on this score. (more…)
Listen to this track by first graduating class members of the funk-soul school of hit singles Sly & The Family Stone. It’s “Family Affair”, the last number one hit they’d enjoy, and one included on their seminal There’s A Riot Going On album released in 1971.
By this time, the soulful togetherness that their material exemplified so well by the end of the idealistic 1960s had given way to darker, more claustrophobic themes that were perhaps more appropriate to the cultural landscape of the early ’70s. The war in Vietnam was raging with no end in sight, Kent State students had been gunned down by the National Guard, and Altamont had made the hippy dream of Woodstock into something of a zero net gain.
This shift in tone on this record also had a lot to do perhaps with leader Sly Stone’s descent into hard drugs, and his tendency to isolate himself from his band members in all kinds of other ways, too. This track was created largely without them, with Sly and his sister Rose taking on vocal duties, and with Sly playing everything else himself but for the Fender Rhodes (Billy Preston), and electric guitar (Bobby Womack). As for the drums, this song was the result of the earliest use of a drum machine on a mainstream hit. Technically then, this isn’t really a band effort in the strictest sense. But, neither was the rest of the album.
Nevertheless, it was a hit even if it would also be their peak. Despite some notable material afterward (“If You Want Me To Stay”, “Que Sera Sera”), it was all downhill from here for Sly & The Family Stone as a band. Maybe it’s appropriate that this was their last number one single, seeing how relevant the subject matter is to who Sly Stone was as a writer, and as an individual as a part of a group at the time. (more…)
Listen to this track by seminal Toronto punk rock scene starters and once nominated “best Toronto band ever”, The Diodes. It’s “Tired of Waking Up Tired” as taken from their 1979 record Released. It would appear on compilation records to follow, and became something of a signature track for the band, enduring even after they’d faded away.
Like many bands from this country of mine, the Diodes were brimming over with talent and potential, yet largely unknown to the mainstream in the rest of the world. This is not to say that they didn’t hit the road to put themselves across. They’d associated themselves with east coast punk rock, playing bills with the Ramones, the Runaways, the Dead Boys, and others. They’d also have something of a connection with UK scenes in the 1980s after transplanting the band there.
They’d formed at a time when punk was being recognized by major labels for its radio play potential, and were signed to Columbia records (in Canada, mind you). They’d move on to other labels, with the title of the album off of which this song comes possibly relating to a changeover to Epic.
But, like a lot of the best punk, this tune has miles of pop appeal rooted in rock n’ roll traditions of the previous decade.
Listen to this track by leather-jacketed punk rock architects from Queens, New York, The Ramones (or simply ‘Ramones’). It’s “Rock N’ Roll High School” a song that served as a title track to the Roger Corman-produced movie of the same name, and appearing on the soundtrack album, and later in a Phil Spectre-produced version on End Of The Century.
By the time this song, and the movie, came out, the Ramones was an institution. Founded in 1974, they took to writing songs for the simple reason that they didn’t have the confidence to play other people’s songs as well as ones they could come up with on their own. The four guys from Forest Hill in Queens New York would craft a sound, and a look, that would solidify what many acts had reached for over the decades since rock n’ roll as a social phenomenon was established.
Their music is basic, visceral, and appealing to the teenaged mind no matter how old that teenager gets. Maybe this is why they were incorporated into the plot of the film which is all about teenagers. In many ways, the movie is much like a Ramones song in cinematic form; it concerns itself with the pursuit of kicks, chicks, and resistance to oppressive authority. (more…)
Listen to this track by singer, songwriter, and pop music auteur Todd Rundgren. It’s his biggest hit, “Hello, It’s Me” as taken from his biggest selling album Something/Anything. The song was released as a single in 1973, where it reached a #5 showing, becoming something of a staple on classic rock radio from then until today.
Rundgren was among the earliest, and most high-profile proponents of the “record it all myself, and play everything too” school. Here on this song, Rundgren mitigated that approach slightly by playing almost everything himself. Either way, it would prove to be an enduring hit for him. And, it would have a lasting place in pop culture history as well, featured on soundtracks, and TV shows, as well as on classic rock radio.
But, there were other tools at work that helped Rundgren to enhance the rate of his output on a sprawling double album; drugs.
Listen to this track by jazz-funk pioneer, future electro innovator, and all-around influential musical barrier-breaker-downer Herbie Hancock. It’s “Chameleon”, a key track on his seminal 1973 album Head Hunters.
That record would spin the heads of many who’d first heard it, perhaps not being able to immediately figure out whether or not it was a jazz record. Many of these people would be the critics. Well, it certainly is a jazz record. But, it also carries with it influences that stood apart from the traditions of the jazz world at the time too; Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and the funk genre in general, which is in turn very much influenced by jazz. Talk about spinning heads!
The barriers between the musical forms expressed here had always been fairly permeable. But, as jazz expanded its borders by the end of the ’60s, the definition of jazz as a musical form became harder to ascertain. It had shifted, and morphed, having taken on new influences, as it had done since it was first recorded.
In the middle of all of that, this record was a big seller, standing as a sign of the musical times where the evolution of jazz was concerned. And it would provide an avenue that would open things up for Hancock, and for other musicians down the road. (more…)
Listen to this track by Hammond B3 organ kingpin and soul jazz practitioner Jimmy Smith. It’s “Root Down (And Get It)” as taken from his 1972 live album Root Down Jimmy Smith Live. The record was recorded live in Los Angeles in February of that year. You can hear the clinking of the glasses which serve as a kind of unofficial percussion section as the patrons listen to the groove as it unfolds. And boy, does it ever.
Like Wes Montgomery with whom Smith partnered on many occasions, Smith was interested in the pop music side of the soul jazz spectrum. But also like Montgomery, Smith was a formidable improvisationalist even if some of his sides are viewed as a bit lightweight.
Yet, here on this cut, it’s the funk that really shines through. And it serves somewhat as a beacon of light for the music that would emerge in ensuing decades, too. (more…)
Listen to this track by Athens Georgia ’60s hairdo sporting new wave quintet The B-52′s. It’s “Rock Lobster”, a 1979 hit record as taken from their self-titled debut album the B-52′s. This is the longer version of a record that had been released earlier in a shorter form. The song established their sound early on as an amalgam of ’60s surf music, B-Movie aethetics, and of course a DIY spirit that played right into punk and new wave. Their timing was perfect.
Serving as their first single, the song was an instant pop hit, despite the fact there was nothing to prepare audiences for it. Of course too, the sound of the record goes against the system too, full of surf guitar, tinkly keyboards, and call and response backing vocals that aren’t really backing vocals, but more like shared leads.This is thanks to Kate Pierson (who also plays Farfisa organ) and Cindy Wilson, who come off as post-punk Shangra-Las.
It became a signature hit for the band along the way. Even in an era when weird, cool records were more common in the mainstream than perhaps they are today, it’s popularity was widespread, played at every school dance for years after its release.
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.
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. (more…)