Listen to this track by tri-cornered melancholically optimistic pop concern XTC. It’s “Wrapped In Grey”, a should-have-been hit single as taken from the band’s 1992 double-LP Nonsuch.
The song displays writer/singer/guitarist Andy Partridge’s affinity for Brian Wilsonesque pop confectionary, and also (for those in the know) the influence of Judee Sill, which slowly came to the fore as XTC put out more and more bucolic and elegantly arranged albums. This mix of influences creates a sort of partly-sunny effect, with the Brian Wilson influence providing the endless summery vibe to contrast with Judee Sill’s influence that suggests hopefulness in the presence of gathering gloom. But, like the work of both, it’s Partridge’s own penchant for the childlike and the innocent that really brings this song to life, parrots and lemurs and all.
For all of this song’s defiant optimism, which is yet another selling point, there is a certain level of irony to be appreciated when comparing the tone and tenor of this song to the situation in which it was recorded and released. By the time the record came out, the band were in the throes of a conflict with their record company, Virgin, who cancelled this very song as a single against Partridge’s wishes. This led the band as a whole to take some out of the ordinary, and even drastic, steps in response. Read more
Listen to this track by South African “world music” pop alchemists featuring lead singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg, Juluka. It’s “Scatterlings of Africa”, an international hit as taken from the band’s 1982 record Scatterlings, their fourth. This single received much attention on the Western charts, even reaching heavy rotation on video channels and programs at the time.
To contrast that, the band itself was practically illegal in their home country of South Africa. With black and white members, they were not even legally allowed perform in public and were banned from the radio under the Apartheid system. Along with the rest of the band, singer and songwriter Clegg and vocalist and guitarist Sipho Mchunu were the embodiment of a forbidden cultural unity in South Africa, performing a fusion cuisine of styles presented in both English and in Zulu languages, often within the confines of the same song.
All the while, Juluka had to keep a low official profile since forming at the end of the sixties. Their popularity was truly grassroots, eventually reaching the rest of the world by the 1980s with this hit song on international radio and on video channels. What was it about this song, and others that riled up the South African establishment so much? More importantly, how did this song fly in the face of Western mores and customs around geopolitics and race in very much the same way? Read more
Listen to this track by Heartbreaker honcho and first-time solo artist Tom Petty. It’s “Free Fallin'”, a smash hit song as taken from his first solo record, 1989’s Full Moon Fever. The song was the first single from that album, and remains today as his most enduring hit song.
The album was recorded around the same time as Petty’s involvement with the Travelling Wilburys, a “supergroup” that was more of an happily accidental situation that brought Petty together with some of his musical heroes, and by association revealing just what many people knew all along; that Petty himself had achieved hero status himself. Besides impressive results on the charts and with heavy rotation on the radio, one of the many things that came out of that situation was his relationship with Jeff Lynne, former ELO creative head and a producer with a signature style. The two began writing together. “Free Fallin'” is arguably their best result.
In some ways, this gambit in creating a solo album was a tough move for Petty, who’s backing band The Heartbreakers had been his comrades in arms for such a long time by then. Purportedly, others in the band were disdainful of the project, possibly fearing that their association with Petty was nearing its end. Still, a few Heartbreakers appear on the album including lead guitarist Mike Campbell (who plays on this song), bassist Howie Epstein, and keyboardist Benmont Tench. Ironically, instead of being a dramatic departure from his life fronting his old band, there’s something about this song that hearkens back to Petty’s earliest days with the Heartbreakers. Read more
Listen to this track by sardonic studio-bound jazz-rock duo Steely Dan. It’s “Peg”, a joyous hit single as taken from their 1977 album Aja, their sixth. The song is one of their most recognizable singles, spending several weeks in the top twenty on the Billboard charts.
By this time in their development, Steely Dan had reached the pinnacle of the artistic mountain they’d been climbing since the cessation of their life as a stable touring band. From 1974 to the time they were recording tracks for Aja, they’d created a meticulous workflow for themselves as a studio-bound concern, hiring studio musicians to supplement their own parts and to help them achieve the results of some very ambitious arrangements. They’d certainly displaced the contributions of former members who had played on their early hits. In this, we catch The Dan just where they wanted to be at the time, and with successful placements in the charts to justify their efforts.
“Peg” is one of the greatest expressions of Steely Dan’s approach to making records, just bursting with life, full of optimism and musical effervescence. It’s downright happy and life-affirming! As usual though, all is not necessarily as it seems here when the lyrics are considered. If one thing hadn’t changed in the modus operandi of principals Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, it was that what we find on the surface of a made for radio pop song by Steely Dan isn’t the whole picture. Read more
Other than the magnificently transportive music they made that shaped the way pop music itself was conceived, made, and culturally codified thereafter, one of the key things that makes The Beatles such a compelling band is the strength of their myth. Now, I have personally bored many people senseless in conversation, and even in podcasts, on the nature of The Beatles as a story, not just as a musical act.
What kind of story are we talking about exactly? I’ve come to believe that their story is a quest myth, and a coming of age story all rolled into one. To the former, it really is a story full of colourful characters that seem to be so huge that recognizing the fact that they were and are living, breathing human beings is rational, but not quite complete. They were, and are, more than that. This is because they take up space in our imaginations as much as they did and do in real life time and space. But as to the latter, the coming of age part of the equation, that’s the aspect of The Beatles story that adds a splash of mournful blue to the psychedelic spectrum. For something to be so wonderful to those outside looking in, it couldn’t possibly have been made to last.
As with everything in life, the answer to Why Did The Beatles Break Up? is and always has been more complicated than one factor affecting the whole. As much as fans like me venerate the people involved, we are talking about human beings here, however talented. They were subject to conflicting forces and grey areas that we all are. What were those forces according to me at least? Here in (very!) rough chronological order are at least 10 for you to consider, Good People.
Listen to this track by Indiana-born and bred heartland troubadour John Mellancamp, aka Johnny Cougar, aka John Cougar, aka John Cougar Mellencamp (whew!). It’s “Jack and Diane”, his enormous 1982 number one hit single as taken from the album American Fool, his fifth.
The song had enormous impact not only on the charts, but on pop culture during a time when music was becoming more and more stylistically ghettoized. As popular as it was, and is, there’s just something about this one that set it apart, seeming to have a cinematic quality that very few songs at the time contained. By 1982, “Jack and Diane” sounded like a progression for Mellencamp, who was then gathering momentum for a classic run of singles during the eighties and into the early nineties.
“Jack and Diane” concerns itself with two American kids growing up in the heartland and unsure of their places in the world. And yet, as with so many records that help define the times in which they’re released, there is an ocean of meaning underneath the scant story presented here. And ironically, much of it only comes to light as one gets older. Read more
Listen to this track by garage rock, glam, and proto-punk champions from Ann Arbor Michigan, The Stooges, aka Iggy & The Stooges. It’s “Search and Destroy”, a landmark cut off of their monumental third LP, Raw Power released in February 1973 . The song was a single, with album track “Penetration” as a b-side, kicking off the album like the sound of an exploding munitions dump. This was the sound of a fully realized Stooges, a band brought back from the dead by the time the album was recorded, produced by lead singer and creative head Iggy Pop, and David Bowie.
By the time this song was laid down and the band was reassembled after breaking up, changes had been made to The Stooges’ line-up. Drummer Scott Asheton remained behind the kit. But bassist Dave Alexander was gone, sidelined by substance abuse and addiction. Guitarist Ron Asheton took his place on bass, while lead guitar duties were handed over to newcomer James Williamson, co-writer of this song. His parts are brought well to the foreground throughout, although the approach to production and mixing of the record didn’t leave too much room for nuance initially. The history of how the record was recorded and mixed is an elaborate and intricate one even before it was transferred to CD format in the late-nineties under the guidance of Bruce Dickinson (Mr “more cowbell” himself). One of the notes on the CD version I have includes Iggy’s assurance that “everything’s still in the red”. Thank goodness for that!
All the while, this song has taken on a life of its own, being a go-to track when compiling lists of best hard rock, punk, glam, whatever, songs ever recorded. It certainly one that demands attention, and one of the high points of Iggy Pop’s career all around. A good portion of the reason for that in my mind is that despite the seeming lack of nuance happening in the music, there are definite layers of meaning to be found in its text that belie the blunt force of its delivery. Read more
Listen to this track by former Wrecking Crew stalwart, one-time stand-in Beach Boy, and unimpeachable Southern Pop hit-maker Glen Campbell. It’s “Wichita Lineman”, a huge hit from his 1968 record of the same name, Wichita Lineman, his twelfth. Written by Jimmy Webb specifically for Campbell, this song perfectly suits the singer’s talents as a vocalist with a sense of the cinematic in his delivery which adds to the epic scale of the material.
The song topped the pop charts all over the world in the fall of 1968, supported by a cadre of top flight sessioners including James Burton and Carole Kaye on guitars, Jim Gordon on drums, soaring strings arranged by producer Al DeLory, and Jimmy Webb himself playing the organ. Besides his emotionally connected vocal, Glen Campbell utilizes his years of experience as a sessioner himself by playing the desolate baritone guitar solo that seems to add streaks of shadow to the twilight-coloured landscape that sets the scene in this song.
Here it is: “Wichita Lineman” is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded and for so many reasons. Even when it was released, the song seemed to defy categorization, and with a late-in-the-day melancholy that lends it undeniable gravitas. Webb’s skill at creating these kinds of effects at the songwriting level are important to note; the song never returns “home” to the tonic established at its beginning, which adds to its deep well of wistful sadness. Ultimately though, the credit for the emotional punch of this song must go to Glen Campbell himself, reinforcing a vital principle that is common to the arsenal of every skilled vocalist who seeks to tell a story; the ability to convey a vivid portrayal of a character that listeners can relate to immediately. Read more
Listen to this track by New York-based hard rock paragons Living Colour. It’s “Cult of Personality”, their biggest hit to date and most recognizable track taken from their 1988 album Vivid. The song was a top twenty song on Billboard’s Top 100, winning the band a Grammy for best hard rock performance, and with a smattering of other awards besides. Since its release, the song has been used across multiple media for many years, from use in video games to (rather ironically considering its subject matter) WWE entrance music.
Despite its sheer scale, the writing of “Cult of Personality” came out of a simple jam during a rehearsal when guitarist and bandleader Vernon Reid played the central riff while playing an entirely different song. From there, a signature hit was born, with central themes spanning the course of a tumultuous twentieth century. It namechecks world leaders with jarring contrast. Joseph Stalin and Gandhi are lined up right next to each other. The voice of Malcolm X starts the song, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt closes it (with a brief interjection from JFK). That’s a pretty broad cultural spectrum.
In an increasingly polarized political landscape all over the world by the end of the eighties, where did this song place on that spectrum? Besides the immense central riff that’s been mentioned, I think this is the song’s central strength; that it doesn’t choose sides along any political lines. That’s not really the point of it. Instead, it tackles a bigger subject, which is all about human perception, our tendency toward myth-making, and other tendencies that make it easy for the right person to use them to influence our judgement when it comes to the facts, pushing us in certain directions for good or ill. How relevant is that today? All too much. Read more
Listen to this track by supremely gifted American pop song artisan and singer-songwriter in her own right Carole King. It’s “It’s Too Late”, a smash single coupled with another song, “I Feel The Earth Move”, as a double A-side, and featured on her classic 1971 record Tapestry. The song was co-written with lyricist Toni Stern, who penned the words after a break-up with a mutual friend of King’s, fellow singer-songwriter James Taylor.
Carole King herself had written for many other artists from Bobby Vee, to The Chiffons, to The Monkees, a role that took up quite a bit of her time from the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s after only a few solo singles under her own name by the beginning of that decade. By then, she’d evolved considerably as a writer and performer. “It’s Too Late” reflects a more mature perspective on the end of a relationship compared to many of the break-up songs she’d written in the previous decade. It adds a level of musical sophistication too, with jazz-inflected guitar and soprano sax adding additional voices to King’s resigned lead vocal and lush piano lines.
But very importantly, it’s also a key song that comes from a woman’s point of view during a time when certain social changes were only just beginning to make their way into the broader cultural conversation. Read more