Life is a mystery, as the poet once said.
This is true even in its most sublime moments, which is a big part of why it’s so precious. There are no guarantees and no promise that all the threads in a single life will be neatly tied up at the end of it, or indeed anywhere along its length. The history of songwriting has certainly plumbed the depths of this aspect of our existence, helping us to be aware of it and to come to a closer understanding of it in our own lives.
But in the lives of some songwriters, this concept of mystery goes one, and sometimes several, steps further. The murky, the undefined, the undisclosed, the unsolved may or may not be a part of their work in an overt way. But in their own lives, it’s a different story completely, with unexpected, discontinuous, and undetermined elements to their lives and careers that either have been mysteries to the listening public, or remain to be so today.
With that in mind, here are 10 songwriters who’s lives, myths, personas, are connected with the unpredictable and mysterious nature of life itself. Some are tragic. Some hold the quality of triumph, too. Some have since stepped from the shadows. Some remain lost in the void. Some you’ve heard about. Some you haven’t. Either way, these ten songwriters embody the various mysteries that are as compelling or even more so than the songs they left behind.
Listen to this track by blues and roots alchemist and multi-instrumentalist interpreter Taj Mahal. It’s “Take A Giant Step”, the title track as taken from one-half of his 1969 two-fer double album Giant Step/De Ol’ Folks Home, his third release. The album represented two different approaches on each disc, with one being a full band excursion into the American roots music spectrum. The other is a solo acoustic record.
On both discs, you can hear just how well integrated Mahal’s sound is with respect to country, blues, folk, and pop music. This track may be the prime example of this, written by pop writers supreme Carole King & Gerry Goffin written for The Monkees and recorded by them as a B-side for first hit single, “The Last Train To Clarksville”. This version by Mahal is a far cry from that one, slowing everything down, taking out the pop-psychedelic and far east edges, and replacing them with a languid and world-weary quality that the fresh-voiced Monkees couldn’t really have pulled off in their version, as much as I love it.
This is another sterling example of how an arrangement and vocal performance can add dimension to a song. So, what’s the angle on this tune? I think there’s a decidedly spiritual aspect to be found here that may have been missed earlier, but that Taj Mahal is able to draw out as easily as a bucket of water from a sacred river. Read more
Listen to this track by low-key new wave Specials splinter group Fun Boy Three. It’s “Our Lips Are Sealed”, a single as taken from their 1983 David Byrne-produced album Waiting, their second and (to date) last. The band consisted of singer Terry Hall, guitarist/vocalist Lynval Goulding, and percussionist and singer Neville Staple, all former members of The Specials who left the ska sound of that band behind in favour of a more spare and post-punk oriented approach.
This song is more recognized in North America by the version recorded by The Go-Go’s in 1981. On the US version of the Waiting album, this song was the lead track perhaps because it was such a recognizable song. But Fun Boy Three came by it pretty honestly, seeing as it’s the product of a writing collaboration between Terry Hall and Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin. In Britain, this version was a bigger hit than the Go-Go’s’ cut, scoring Fun Boy Three a top ten placement on the singles chart in 1983, in part thanks to an appearance on Top Of The Pops on which they performed the song.
“Our Lips Are Sealed” is more than just a writing collaboration between two musicians of course. It’s also a document of something far more personal, with decided contrasts between the two versions of the song that may reveal a thing or two about the points of view of its writers. Read more
Listen to this track by Boston-born disco queen and original dance-pop music diva Donna Summer. It’s “I Feel Love”, the breakthrough 1977 electro-dance hit as produced by Italian producer and musician Giorgio Moroder . It would appear on her fifth album, I Remember Yesterday and as a 12 inch extended single (an innovation of her label, Casablanca), which is what you’re hearing now. It would appear in multiple re-mixes over the years.
Legend has it that Brian Eno and David Bowie discovered the song while in the middle of making the Berlin Trilogy, convincing even them of what dance music would sound like in the ensuing decades. They were right on the money, of course. Along with being thoroughly innovative, this song was also a huge pop hit that immediately appealed to the masses. It scored top ten status all over the world and effectively solidified Donna Summer’s star status at just the right time, which was the height of the disco period.
Amazingly too, it paved the way for modern club music in general by freeing it from the world of American R&B, and introducing decidedly European influences instead. Its influence would have a lasting impact well beyond disco, particularly where music technology was concerned, but for many other reasons, too. Read more
Listen to this track by social commentary-oriented hip hop and spoken word crew The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. It’s “Television, The Drug Of The Nation”, a notable track that was released as a single and taken from their 1992 debut record, Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury.
Musician, poet, and rapper Michael Franti envisioned a style of hip hop that more directly confronted the social issues of the day, while also combining original grooves with sampled material. As for the latter aspect of the music, drummer and percussionist Rono Tsu was on hand to serve as the crew’s DJ. In addition to incorporating spoken raps in a style previously laid down by hip hop forebear Gil Scott-Heron, Franti also referenced the lingual rhythms of Beat poetry, eventually cutting a record with Beat movement elder William S. Burroughs.
But what of this song, so popular as a soundtrack commonly heard winding its way up and down university dorms in 1992, a time when the Internet wasn’t even a gleam in the eye of mass media outlets? Well, to me, I think this song is less about media, and more about us as consumers of it. Read more
The Beatles demonstrated a significant spike in maturity by the time they began to write songs for their sixth record, Rubber Soul. This revealed itself in the way they recorded the album, deliberately meant to be an artistic statement and not just as a memento of their live act. Their new maturity also revealed itself in the arrangements of the songs, incorporating new instruments and the influences of music from other cultures, too. It certainly comes out in the vocal arrangements that are gloriously layered in a way that, as great as the harmonies always were on Beatles records, reaches a sonic zenith here with the best singing of their career as a band to date.
Possibly the most striking sign that the Beatles had truly come into their maturity as a band, a recording entity, and as individuals is the songwriting. There are love songs on this record as expected. But, they aren’t just the paeans to puppy love as they were on “Thank You Girl” or “From Me To You” from two years previous. As Moe Berg from Canadian band The Pursuit of Happiness once said: “I don’t write songs about girls anymore. I have to write songs about women“. That’s where the Beatles were at by Rubber Soul; they were adults now. So, here on this set of songs love is far more complex, often provoking as much ire and insecurity as it does warm feelings of affection. At times, it gets pretty dark and overtly so, where in the past those feelings of anger and resentment were less obvious behind a pure pop sheen. Basically, Rubber Soul is the first of their records aimed at grown-ups, or soon to be grown ups, and not specifically at teenagers screaming from the stands.
To discuss some of these themes in this episode of the podcast, my good friend Graeme Burk and I am joined by NPR Books editor Petra Mayer to talk about these very themes, and other bits and pieces to do with The Beatles sixth UK record. Speaking of teenagers screaming from the stands, we also talk about an historic performance not just in Beatles history but in all history; The Beatles at Shea Stadium.
Listen to the podcast right here.
Listen to this track by British folk-pop outfit The Lilac Time. It’s “Return To Yesterday”, a single as taken from their 1988 debut The Lilac Time. The band was led by singer-songwriter Stephen Duffy, AKA Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, one time synthpop solo artist (“Kiss Me”), and (as not everyone knows) a founding member of Duran Duran in their pre-fab five incarnation. He left in 1979.
The Lilac Time owes less to either project than it does to British chamber folk and American-style roots music, both of which are inextricably related of course. The band was formed by Duffy with his brother Nick in 1986, leaving the new wave sounds he once traded in well behind and taking the name of his new band from Nick Drake’s “River Man” (going to tell him all I can/About the plan/Lilac time …”). Musically, the band’s material is very Anglocentric in an age that preceded Britpop by the better part of a decade. The Lilac Time would even release an album on Alan McGee’s Creation label in 1991, although in a trend that would mark this band’s lack of good timing, that would be before Britpop reached its zenith.
One thing that Duffy kept as far as his early career in new wave was a high tension between melody and lyrical themes using a stark contrast between the two as artistic fuel. For instance, this song presents a bouncy, country-ish feel while simultaneously touching on a pretty weighty theme; the future and the loss of innocence where the future is concerned. Read more
Fall is a glorious time of year, with late September being an episode of the season when the land casts off the last vestiges of summer, at least in this particular hemisphere. It’s a melancholy and often bittersweet time where we reflect on the boundless joy of summertime memories we’ve made, or at least console ourselves that it will soon be a lot cooler so that we can actually get some sleep! It’s also a time I personally associate with new beginnings, even as things are busy coming to an end. Maybe you do, too. September is like the more pertinent marker for a new year in that respect.
With all that in mind, it’s time once again for a new playlist of new music on this year’s edition of Fall Into Tunes. So, as per tradition at this time of year by now, here is a selection of new music from across the spectrum for your review and enjoyment.
Read about and listen to the songs below, and tell me your favourite tracks in the comments section, Good People. Read more
Listen to this track by producer, rapper, and genre-crossing hip hop auteur Missy Elliott. It’s “Get Ur Freak On”, a monster hit single as taken from her third album, Miss E … So Addictive from 2001. The song is a bona fide classic by now, and covered by many from Eels who made this song a staple during their 2003 tour, to Britney Spears during her Vegas residency, to FLOTUS Michelle Obama featured in her recent appearance on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, with Missy Elliott herself joining in while riding in the backseat. Talk about cultural reach!
“Get Ur Freak On” borrows heavily from bhangra in terms of its rhythmic make-up and with music of the Asian continent generally in terms of its texture. That latter aspect is particularly reflected in its use of the very sticky six-note riff sampling what sounds like a koto, that being a 13-stringed instrument used in traditional Japanese music. Other sources say it’s a tumbi, which is something akin to a Punjabi one-string banjo. Either way, that’s pretty far from just an 808 programmable drum machine and a microphone.
In that regard alone, “Get Ur Freak On” represents an evolutionary jump for hip hop in general, going beyond urban America and into whole new geographical and cultural territories by the early two-thousands. It opened the gates culturally speaking, and it has wider implications thematically, too; that of empowerment, and on all kinds of levels. Read more
Listen to this track by beloved Canadian singer-songwriter and Orillia Ontario favourite son, Gordon Lightfoot. It’s “Carefree Highway”, an international hit as taken from his 1974 album Sundown. This song was one of several in his catalogue that scored a top ten placement on the US Billboard Hot 100. Otherwise, this song made the easy listening charts and the country charts in his home country of Canada, where he’d become rightly held as a national treasure.
Like Bob Dylan, Lightfoot was managed by Albert Grossman during the 1960s, and was on many of the same scenes. During that time his material was covered by many, including Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins, Judy Collins, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, among others. By the early 1970s and after defecting from United Artists to Warner Brothers, Gordon Lightfoot settled into a sound of his own that mixed acoustic folk-rock with a smooth country feel, along with a dash of sorrowful strings for good measure that gave his output a heavy shot of melancholy. The period between 1970 and 1978 is looked upon by many as his golden period that had him enjoying massive exposure on Canadian radio across the dial. For all of his ubiquity, it was easy to take him for granted.
On “Carefree Highway”, it was also easy to miss what lay beneath his gentle, made for radio play, and easy on the ears sound, to wit; an ocean of bittersweetness, much of that fueled by what seemed to be personal regret, not to mention the songwriting savvy it took to deliver it so poignantly to listeners. Read more