Listen to this track by one-time wool-hatted Monkee and recognized country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith. It’s “Harmony Constant”, a deep cut taken from his tongue-in-cheekily titled 1972 album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘, his fifth as a solo artist.
That title was applied in a characteristically wry manner by Nesmith, a response to his record company. They had given him a mandate to put out another album quickly after his more experimental Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1, this time preferably with a hit song or two included in there somewhere. Even if it didn’t set the charts on fire, the result was one of Nesmith’s most celebrated works as a solo artist. It also includes his version of an actual hit song he wrote for The Stone Poneys, “A Different Drum”. So in a sense, Nesmith kept his promise to his record company! Despite all that, a burgeoning number of country-rock songwriters by the early seventies would enjoy much greater chart success than Nesmith himself would, comparatively speaking.
Apart from any (ridiculous) snobbery around his association with a TV pop group, maybe this is down to Nesmith’s unconventional approach to writing country songs. In “Harmony Constant” specifically, there is a distinct contrast between how he presents an eminently hummable tune to lyrics that are high-minded, even touching on the metaphysical. There’s also a curious subtext to be found here that isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill for the standard love song, either. 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
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 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
Listen to this track by post-Beatles Paul McCartney songwriting vehicle and bona fide top forty behemoth Wings. It’s “Silly Love Songs” a smash single that appeared on the band’s 1976 LP Wings At The Speed of Sound. The song proved its own thesis by spending five non-consecutive weeks on the number one spot of the Billboard 100. It would be McCartney’s twenty-seventh number one song, helping to place him in the Guinness World Book of Records as the world’s most successful songwriter by 1979.
By this time, McCartney and Wings were on an upswing with a number of hits behind them and with many in front as well before the band ended in 1981. However even during this peak period where chart action was concerned, the songwriter was not without his critics. Even his former songwriting partner John Lennon had levelled an opinion that McCartney had gone soft, writing lightweight, crowd-pleasing love songs rather than turning his talents to more substantial subjects. This song was a self-aware reaction to that. Crowd-pleasing? What’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?
Having said that, there’s something else going on in this song that I think a lot of rock fans had complained about where McCartney was concerned by 1976; that it just doesn’t rock in the way that, say, “Helter Skelter” or Back In The USSR” does. I think there’s plenty to unpack there that reveals something about McCartney the writer, and maybe something about his audience, too. Read more
Listen to this track by experimental pop collective and repositioners of classic R&B songs The Flying Lizards. It’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, a cover of the much-beloved 1959 Barrett Strong original. As often as it was covered, by both The Beatles and by The Rolling Stones among many others, The Flying Lizards made this one their own. After its release as a single, it eventually appeared on their self-titled 1979 debut album and became an (perhaps unlikely) hit single; number 5 in the UK, and number 22 on the dance charts in the States.
In some ways, it sounds as though this take on the song is trying to throw its own fight in the appealing pop music stakes. And yet somehow, the opposite effect knocked listeners out during the height of new wave when weirdly cool records were able to thrive as record companies, perhaps, were still trying to figure out the paradigm shift. Even in 1979, this sounded pretty weird coming out of the radio; a true novelty hit.
But beyond the novelty aspect of things, I think there is something underneath this version of a classic and well-covered R&B song that does more than just amuse us by being such a curiosity as a hit single.
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 eclectic London punk rock folk heroes The Clash. It’s “Guns Of Brixton”, a key track as taken from their landmark 1979 album London Calling. The song was the product of a songwriting and vocal effort of bassist Paul Simonon, shown on the front cover of the album giving his bass guitar an introduction to the ground in what looks like an uncontrolled act of rage. Yet on this song, that bass is used very productively indeed, even if the rage is still boiling under the surface.
By the time the band recorded this, their third album, they’d strayed away from the straight-ahead punk rock on their first album. Reggae was only one musical style to be found on London Calling, although “Guns Of Brixton” is where they get to the heart of that style more so than ever before. Simonon in particular was inspired by the cult film The Harder They Come and its main character actually referenced by name on this song. All of the violent imagery and paranoia found here comes from that same mythology found in the movie.
Having said that, it also sprang directly from the experiences and sensibilities of its writer, born and raised in Brixton and very aware of the tensions that were growing there by the end of the seventies. In this, the song was very prescient in what would happen in that very neighbourhood not long after this song was released. Read more
Listen to this track by throwback ragtime guitarist and singular “character” Leon Redbone. It’s “Lazy Bones”, a cut off of his 1975 debut record On The Track. That album contained several renditions of pre-war tin pan alley, jazz, and country blues tunes like this one that are so authentic sounding that you can practically hear the surface crackles on them.
For all of the retro-style textures from decades ago that artists today reference in their own music, Leon Redbone preceded them all. Like an artist today might reference a sound from the seventies, Redbone in turn reached back into the 1930s and even earlier to remind his audiences that the nature of pop music hadn’t really changed that much in terms of form in that they were still short little aural slabs of joy that are designed to get stuck in your head. The album even scored an #87 on the top 100 Billboard pop album chart by 1975.
Much like the dusty musical forms he traded in, Leon Redbone was an enigma. Like the blues itself, no one really knows where he came from, and not just in a showbiz sense.
Listen to this track by parodic prog rock paragons Genesis. It’s “The Return Of The Giant Hogweed”, a tale of botanical horror as featured on the 1971 album Nursery Cryme, their third. The album kicked off a new era for Genesis; new members, new textures, and a new sense of scale.
The vital additions to the band by this time were drummer and vocalist Phil Collins, and guitarist Steve Hackett. Both musicians added their considerable instrumental chops to the material on the record to raise the whole band’s game. As a result, they helped to assure the group’s place as top shelf participants in a growing movement of bands at the time who traded on complex musical structures and often very high-minded lyrical subject matter.
To me, what made Genesis unique in their early output is that they could take conventions of all kinds and bring out the absurdities in them, no matter how obscure or mundane. And here, they’re able to write a song about an invasion, while also rooting it (pardon the pun) in an area not generally drawn on by most songwriters; botany. But there’s also hint at another area of interest that can be traced in their work that delves deeper still. Read more