When George Harrison returned from visiting Bob Dylan and The Band, who were happily holed up in Upstate New York and busy inventing Americana by the end of 1968, he described the situation to which he was returning as “the winter of discontent that was The Beatles”. That’s pretty harsh. But things really were that bad, with relations between the principals having deteriorated over the course of the year. Nineteen-sixty-nine didn’t promise to be very much more bearable for The Beatles. And it wasn’t!
No one could say they weren’t busy, though. They’d made a film and had a lousy time of it. They’d recorded hours and hours of material for a new record but no one wanted to do the necessary with the tapes in order to turn it into an album. Internally, the whole Beatles thing was a giant pain in everyone’s ass by early 1969. This isn’t even counting the money-hemorrhaging business pursuits of their company Apple Corps, or the fact that discussions around future management of the band and its catalogue were becoming more and more heated and unproductive.
In the middle of all this, they really were trying to get back to where they once belonged. They wanted to kick all the psychic crap they’d accumulated just from being Beatles to the curb and make a stark, honest, and liberating rock n’ roll record without any studio trickery just like they’d done in their early career. The result is the only Beatles album I don’t love; Let It Be. Read more
Listen to this track by Atlanta Georgia R&B pop proponents TLC. It’s “Waterfalls”, a smash hit single and signature track featured on their second record Crazy Sexy Cool which went an incredible eleven-times platinum. The song made monumental waves on the charts, and was also notable for becoming the number one video on MTV, holding that position for a full month. TLC was the first African-American group to hold that position by 1995.
“Waterfalls” is notable for many other reasons besides this, of course. For one thing, it was the best song that Prince never wrote, complete with a full-on Sly & The Family Stone-style vibe matched with hip-hop aesthetics a-plenty. Group member Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes can be thanked for writing it, with a co-write credit to Marqueze Etheridge of Organized Noize who also produced it. Another notable trait about this song is its subject matter, dealing in the dangers of drugs and unprotected sex, very vividly represented in the aforementioned video.
Maybe a third aspect of this song in the light of that is that it should really sound more preachy and judgmental than it does. It certainly seems to have a political edge to it, being among the first to deal head on with the AIDS epidemic. Maybe too, it reflects something of its writer’s inner voice as well.
Listen to this track by Bostonian post-punk noise architects Mission of Burma. It’s “Secrets”, the opening track of their influential 1982 full-length debut record Vs. The record followed up the Signals, Calls, and Marches EP from the previous year, creating what many critics at the time considered to be a full realization of their sound and potential.
Forming in 1979, the group pulled together a sound that drew from punk rock and British post-punk, with a smattering of American avant garde influences in the form of tape loops and sound manipulation. Like many bands in the age when the term “alternative” as applied to rock music was just a twinkle in the eye of the mainstream music press, Mission of Burma was championed by college rock radio stations, in their case in the Boston area. This opener is emblematic of their approach, which affects a kind of barely contained chaos, with traditional rock grooves being taken on in one instant and then discarded in the next.
This is in line with the song’s subject matter, which is concerned with small moments in time that precede more widely encompassing changes ahead, with human connections becoming less reliable and more frightening all the while. Read more
After what seemed to be an endless winter this year, Spring is finally here. On the West Coast of Canuckistan, we’re used to bragging about spring flowers in February, posting Facebook pictures to torment our friends and family back east. Goshdarn it, it’s a tradition! Not so this year, though. In fact, it was balmy back east when we were still shoveling sidewalks. Thanks, global climate change!
Still, even if winter didn’t take the hint that it was time to hit the road as fast as I would have liked, what remains is the music. For every thing, said Pete Seeger (or was it the Bible?), there is a season, turn, turn, turn. And so as if to fall in line with that as the buds on the trees are finally making good on their promises, here is a collection of new tunes just for spring 2017.
Lend an ear and drink in the life-giving splendour of each. And as always, tell me all about your favourites in the comments section, Good People.
Listen to this track by soul music master architect and supernaturally gifted vocalist and songwriter Sam Cooke. It’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, a B-side to his single “Shake” that would also become a celebrated civil rights anthem. The song would also appear on the 1964 album, Ain’t That Good News, his last album during his lifetime. The song would also appear posthumously on 1965’s Shake.
The sheer magnitude of this song is almost impossible to measure, with countless cultural associations, cover versions, samples, and all around influence attached to it. It’s almost impossible too to decide which aspect of that influence is the most significant. Maybe the most obvious one is the sheer rawness of expression it represents, written by a black man celebrated as a peerless artist in one context, from the perspective of one regarded as an object to be reviled in another; at a movie and going downtown, where someone keeps telling him not to hang around, knocked to his knees when he asks for help. Nineteen sixty-four is still not so far away from today, even if the rules have changed on the surface. People of colour are still treated as members of a mass, not as individual representatives of their own experience.
Coming from a pop singer like Cooke, this multilayered song was unexpected even by Cooke himself who purportedly received it fully formed and not sure what to do with it. Full of complexity, it did more than just call out a culture for its prejudice and cruelty. It had a pretty big hand in changing pop music itself, too. Read more
Listen to this track by Stockholm-based indie trio with a self-explanatory and comma-free name, Peter (Morén) Bjorn (Yttling) and John (Eriksson). It’s “Young Folks”, a single as taken from their 2006 record Writer’s Block, a record that served as something of a breakthrough for the band after forming in 1999.
The album title is not in reference to the lack of ideas that often plagues writers.
Rather, it’s a nod to the neighbourhood, Hornstull, in which the band was based at the time, known for a high concentration of writers and artists and for being a hip part of Stockholm. As a result, the sound they reached for on this song and on the whole record was a cooler and slightly detached approach to production and arrangement that brought forward a few more sonic idiosyncrasies than most, like whistling the key hook on this song. That’s a sound a listener might make reproducing it on their way to work. That approach helped to distinguish them, with this song being a standout in various forms on radio, streaming sites, TV shows, movie soundtracks, and beyond.
The song features the guest vocals of Victoria Bergsman of fellow Stockholmers The Concretes playing the role of the would-be lover to which the forthright narrator asks a very direct question. Read more
Listen to this song by precocious Kiwi singer-songwriter Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, better known by pop radio fans as Lorde. It’s “Royals”, her smash single as taken from 2013’s Pure Heroine, her debut full-length record. “Royals” released in the summer of 2013 as the forerunner to the album.
When “Royals” hit the airwaves, it defied the very rigid format of commercial radio on a number of fronts; it was not traditionally arranged to the exact specifications of a hit song in 2013, and it enjoyed radio play on pure pop stations as well as alternative stations. It remains to be a singular musical statement that stands out among the great sea of commercial pop music that continues to play things safe when it comes to the way the music is made, how it’s presented, and even its subject matter.
To that last point, this song reveals itself to be something of a generational anthem that calls the assumptions of pop culture into question directly. But it isn’t as simple as being a song about rejecting the lust for fame and riches. This song is more complex than that and not without its cultural trip hazards, either. Read more
Listen to this track by jazz-rock innovators with a rotating line-up Weather Report. It’s “Birdland”, a bona fide hit single as taken from their 1977 album Heavy Weather. The record was a smash success, selling loads while also impressing the reviewers at Downbeat at the same time.
In particular, the album showed off the dynamics of the band and where they’d pushed the boundaries of jazz as a form, coupling it with many strains of music that included rock, funk, and electronic music. This is perhaps a reflection of the group’s leadership under keyboardist Joe Zawinul and his “partner in crime” saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Both men had come up in other bands in the sixties under Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis respectively, with each of those being musicians who also sought to escape the rigidity of jazz as a form in order to put across musical visions using a wider palette. This certainly set the stage for Zawinul and Shorter to do the same.
Here on this song and on the rest of the record, this is evident. But it’s not just about redefining the boundaries of jazz in terms of texture and style. It’s also about form, with a specific element for which jazz is known largely left out of the equation. Read more
Listen to this track by self-confessed creekdipper and superbly gifted singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. It’s “Century Plant”, the opening track to her 1994 album Loose, on which she is joined by a bevy of talented friends including Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, REM’s Mike Mills. and former Jayhawk and then-future husband Gary Louris. This record was something of a comeback album for her after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
Williams found support for her situation in the Sweet Relief campaign and related compilation album around this time that featured many of her peers and elders alike who admired her work and were quick to come to her aid. At the time, Williams was one of many musicians in the United States without health insurance. In the middle of that harrowing situation, her illness did nothing to reduce her capacity for powerful songwriting in a folk storytelling influenced version of country rock with her unique voice in the center of it. Most importantly, it did not diminish her life-affirming attitude to be found in her songs. To me, this is the active ingredient to her work; a sort of defiant optimism and positivity.
“Century Plant” embodies this attitude, a song that is concerned with shifts in perspective. This is particularly when it comes to the nature of human potential and the mysteries that often surround it. Read more
A recurring theme in my walk through The Beatles’ discography and therefore their history too, has been the mythic quality of their story. For me and for many fans, The Beatles are more than just a rock group. They were a generational ideal, or at least representatives of what talented people could do when they came together to form a common identity.
When we think of any band we love, this is often the common denominator; that in the making of art, mortality is subverted somehow. The Beatles went beyond the realm of the musical in this. They were cultural paragons, and collectively a symbol for that which can potentially change the world for the better. That’s a lot of pressure on four musicians in their twenties. It couldn’t last. Nor did it.
It’s been noted by both McCartney and Starr that when The Beatles recorded Abbey Road, they weren’t doing so with the idea that they’d never record together as a band again, as bad as things were getting by 1969. Maybe in retrospect it just seems like it. But there is something of the journey to Avalon about this record. Read more