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 enduring four-man multimedia phenomenon Micky, Davy, Mike, and Peter; The Monkees. It’s “Sometime In The Morning”, a deep cut and favourite track off of their mega-selling second album More Of The Monkees, released in January of 1967. The album remained at the number one spot on the Billboard 200 for a big 18 weeks. Meanwhile, this song would appear multiple times in their concurrent and very popular TV show The Monkees including in one of my favourite episodes “Monkee Mother”, guest starring Rose Marie.
Nineteen sixty-seven was a banner year for the group for a number of reasons. First, the TV show was an Emmy-winning hit. Second, their first live appearances as a group starting at tail-end of 1966 were going swimmingly during a time when they were taking heat for being just a pretend group who couldn’t play their own instruments. As far as the “pretend” part of that equation, this was true in one sense; the group they played on TV really was fictional, even though its members had the same names as the four principle cast. In real life though, they were as real as any other band playing shows in front of live audiences. The differences between their two identities, one fictional and one real, may explain the confusion around The Monkees’ authenticity. No one else was doing this sort of thing in quite this way at the time.
Further to that, this dynamic blurred the lines about who was responsible and who should be credited for the music people were hearing and buying. So, when More Of The Monkees hit the racks in January of 1967 to the surprise of The Monkees themselves who had no idea it was even coming out, things were about to get real ugly, real fast. Read more
Listen to this track by London R&B quintet you wouldn’t let your daughter go out with, The Rolling Stones. It’s “Paint It Black”, a number one record released as a stand-alone single in the UK in May of 1966 as the harbinger to their landmark LP Aftermath. In North America, it was added to a modified version of the record as the opening track.
This song by the Stones remains to be one of the most sonically varied and innovative tracks in their now very extensive catalogue. Sure, there’s that undeniable sitar part. But there’s so much more happening around it so as to make that part just one of many important aspects of this song, which seemed to foresee post-punk even before the word “punk” was applied as a musical term.
Of course, this song also caught the band at a crucial point in their career, reaching new compositional heights. It also was a time when the dynamics within the band were shifting greatly, and not completely comfortably, either. Read more
Listen to this track by funk-soul giant and musical Godfather to soul and her many children, James Brown. It’s “I Got The Feelin'”, a key track as taken from the album of the same name, I Got The Feelin’ released in the spring of 1968.
This song was one of a few key singles that would help to establish James Brown as a true innovator. The year before, he’d released “Cold Sweat”, a song of such importance to so many musical streams down through the years and up until today that its value cannot be measured. It helped to open up several musical directions for everyone from seventies funk, to electro, and hip hop in the eighties and sampled heavily ever since. But it initially set James Brown and his band on a path to create some of his most memorable and musically innovative songs of his career, like this one.
Among the most important elements that this song builds upon is the idea of what a lead vocal means, and how traditional singing is adapted to a new paradigm that has less to do with literal meaning or even straight melody, and more to do with something that only the body can express. Read more
Listen to this song by widely acknowledged gospel-blues pioneer and Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll herself Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s “Didn’t It Rain”, a gospel standard in this case delivered live in Manchester, England in 1964. This peformance is featured on the DVD The American Folk Blues Festival: The British Tours.
This 1964 version of the tour featured some of the pioneers of urban and rural blues at the time, including Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and others. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s segment was filmed by Granada Television at disused Wilbraham Road station, fixed up to look like an American sharecropper’s porch in the American South. Two-hundred onlookers in the audience sat opposite the station platform that served as a stage. In typical British tradition, it rained during the performance. But, after it rained, Sister Rosetta performed this tune, a tale of Noah and his ark, of redemption, and condemnation.
Among other things, this performance reminded audiences of what they’d come to know as rhythm & blues and even rock ‘n’ roll in their purest forms. But even then, not many people at the time were fully aware of her role in creating a sound that served as a pillar for those musical movements, set in place when Elvis was still potty training. Read more
George Martin died last month at the ripe old age of 90 after a life well lived. In many a tribute he was hailed as one of the many “fifth Beatles” that have passed on before him, from manager Brian Epstein, to stalwart roadie and go-for Mal Evans, to Apple office manager and one-time driver Neil Aspinall, to Beatle-championing US disk jockey Murray The K. But, I think even that honourable distinction of Fifth Beatle limits George Martin.
His revolutionary ideas about what a producer is supposed to be in relation to artists, and what the studio was supposed to be in relation to making albums changed music forever, and for the better. To me, this counts for a lot more than attaching the label of fifth anything to him. His role in the progression of pop music history cannot be underestimated, all Beatles (fifth or otherwise) aside.
What are the ins and outs of this, though? What made George Martin a great producer, enabling him to usher such great music into the world in the manner that he did? Well, that’s what I think we should explore in detail right now, Good People! Here are 10 elements, characteristics, attributes that I feel George Martin possessed that helped him to do what seemed like the work of a saint; turn pop music from a throwaway curiosity and make it into art.
Listen to this track by British R&B soul-jazz gurus The Graham Bond Organisation. It’s “Wade In The Water” a version of a traditional song that appears on their second, and final, album The Sound Of ’65, released that very year in March. The band consists of Bond on organ and alto saxophone, Dick Heckstall-Smith on tenor saxophone, Jack Bruce on bass, and Ginger Baker on the kit.
Along with Alexis Corner’s Blues Incorporated, The Graham Bond Organisation (misspeling of Oxford English “orginisation” is deliberate, everyone …) was a very well-respected unit on the R&B scene in London from the early to mid 1960s. If the Beatles and the Stones were the bands that the record buying public loved, then Graham Bond and his compatriots were just as beloved by their musician peers on the London club scene. For a time, even future jazz-fusion innovator John McLaughlin was a part of the band on guitar. For those looking for pure chops and blues authenticity that was so sought after at the time, then these guys were it.
As short-lived as this band was, they helped to sow the seeds of the progressive rock and jazz-rock movements in Britain that would flourish by the end of the sixties and into the seventies. As influential as they were, there was much trouble at the root for these guys when it came to personal demons. Read more
Listen to this track by Los Angeles-based folk-rock trio featuring ingenue singer Linda Ronstadt. It’s “Different Drum”, a 1967 single as taken from their second album, Evergreen, Vol. 2, which would turn out to be their most successful release.
The song was penned by Michael Nesmith, a member of the Monkees of course, but written in 1965 before his profile was raised by the weekly TV show that made him famous. Even before Stone Poneys got a hold of it, it had been recorded by bluegrass outfit The Greenbriar Boys. Nesmith himself would record his own version of the song on his And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ album in 1972.
In the summer of 1967, this proved to be the first hit single (#13 on the Billboard Hot 100) that singer Linda Ronstadt would enjoy in a solo career that would yield several as the sixties turned into the seventies, and even beyond. Maybe the song’s subject matter inadvertently pointed to the fate of the group; that each member was ultimately headed in different directions to the others before the end of the decade.
Yet I think more interestingly, this take on Nesmith’s tune as re-interpreted by Ronstadt says a lot about its current era of the sixties and how things were changing especially when it came to the roles of men and women. Read more
One month ago, David Bowie turned 69. At the same time, he released a great album, arguably to be compared to his best ever works. But, two days later, he died.
I am not over it. Maybe the Internet has moved on. But, I haven’t.
David Bowie helped to shape the world I grew up in. So many musical movements I enjoyed was touched by him. Every weird haircut that I admired was indirectly inspired by him. The very definition of what a man was supposed to be was redefined for me by him. For our generation, manhood (and womanhood too!) became a spectrum of identity along which we became free to move. With that in place, we could decide on the details of what our identities meant for ourselves dynamically instead of holding to some spurious one size fits all ideal. Turn and face the strange, he said! These days, these dynamics are just a given, of course. But, I believe that we have Bowie to thank for a lot of that just because of the impact he had on popular culture with the various masks and personas he wore.
That’s just the thing. David Bowie was as much about redefining how we perceive identity as he was about musically inspiring his peers and followers. In fact, Bowie’s innovation with identity and artifice is entwined with his musical output in such a way that makes either one a facet of the other. What’s come out of that dichotomy between persona and sound simply makes him immortal.
Here are 16 personas that Bowie projected through out his career either by his design or made manifest through our perception as his audience. Which one do you identify with the most? I imagine the answer to that is as varied as there are the number of personas Bowie took on. But, take a look, and tell me what you think.
Listen to this track by American folk music dynasty member and Brooklyn NY born storytelling singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. It’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, an epic length story-song that appears on his 1967 debut album, appropriately titled Alice’s Restaurant.
This song is his most famous even now, based on real people and real life events, and delivered in a “talking blues” style made popular by his legendary dad, Woody Guthrie. It would prove to be an enduring song even if it is longer than most; 18 minutes and change, depending on the version, of which there are now quite a few. Most of that running time consists of a spoken-word delivery with a circular ragtime style finger-picking vamp behind it. Unconventional as it is, it got Arlo Guthrie a recording contract after his live performances of the song caught the attention of underground radio, who got a hold of a live recording. It was even adapted into a full length feature film in 1969 directed by Arthur Penn, and starring Arlo Guthrie playing a version of himself.
Because the story initially takes place during the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s now often given airplay during that time of the year, having celebrated it’s fiftieth year this past November. But, the themes the song deals with go beyond a single time of year or occasion. Maybe that’s why it was such a hit, despite the level of commitment it asked of listeners during a time when three minute songs were the order of the day. Read more