Listen to this track by Scottish folk-rock proponent and former Stealers Wheel frontman Gerry Rafferty. It’s “Baker Street”, a huge international hit and probably his most recognized song as taken from his second solo album, 1978’s City To City.
The song and the album off of which it came was something of a comeback for Rafferty, who had been hampered from releasing any new work until the legal barbed wire he was wrapped up in with the dissolution of Stealers Wheel was concluded. In order to see to resolving this, he found himself making frequent trips by train between his home in Glasgow and his lawyer’s offices in London; city to city indeed, then. While in London, he stayed at a friend’s flat on the titular Baker Street. As such, this song captures the atmosphere and sets of feelings associated with a tempestuous period for Rafferty, ending well enough to allow him to record his next record, with this song being the biggest of three singles taken from it.
The song is probably best known for its distinct saxophone riff, one that launched a thousand sax parts well into the 1980s. But it’s the song underneath the riff that’s always stood out for me, and certainly a vivid portrait of an artist who walked a razor’s edge between pursuing a creative life, and having to face the pressures of the music industry. Read more
Listen to this track by powerhouse jazz-pop crooner Tony Bennett, and impressionistic ivory-tinkler Bill Evans. It’s “Waltz For Debby”, an original melody written by Evans that turned into something of a jazz standard from when it was first recorded in the mid-fifties.
This version appears on the pair’s 1975 collaborative effort, The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album, which was the first of two albums from them. It represents a high watermark in the catalogues of both men, which considering the calibre of talent at work here, is really saying something. In some ways, the likelihood of this record being as transcendent as it is seems unlikely on paper. As dextrous as Bennett has always been as a vocalist, by this time in his career he was a traditional pop singer, and not noted for a pure jazz style. In contrast to that, Evans was known for his complex and even cerebral approach to jazz. Although like Bennett, he’d traded in the interpretation of jazz standards for a good deal of his career by this time, Evans’ tendencies to deconstruct those melodies stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the vocalist.
With all that said, this album works anyway, and gloriously so. And this rendition of Evans’ tune, with lyrics written by Gene Lees is one of the most powerful. This is down to the strength of the song as interpreted by Evans for this duet. But, Bennett does more than his part to bring it to life, a story about childhood, adulthood, and the bittersweet process of seeing one fade to make room for the other. Read more
Listen to this track by British punk outliers and anti-boyband upstarts The Sex Pistols. It’s “Anarchy In The U.K”, a late 1976 single that would appear on the band’s sole studio album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. That album was released in the fall of 1977, which was a banner year for British punk. This song would mark the time when music and the culture out of which it came in Britain would change forever, with new costuming, and a new banner under which to rally.
A lot of the classic elements of rock music are found in the music of The Sex Pistols. On that level, it’s not really all that revolutionary. But, as with the first generation of rock n’ roll that appeared twenty years previously, musical innovation wasn’t really the point. What was the point was the visuals, the presentation, the personalities involved, and a fundamental perception shift from the audience’s point of view. By the mid-to-late 1970s, something was needed to inject new life into the rock millieu. By then, rock music had grown dangerously close to respectability. The Sex Pistols would certainly prove to be a tide in the opposite direction on that score.
What made this song, and this band so compelling within that? Well, I think the reason was this: they lived the lyrics of the song outright when it came to the gap between their generation and mainstream culture. Read more
Listen to this track by former Holly and one-third of Crosby, Stills & (yes) Nash, Graham Nash. It’s “I Used To Be A King”, a key track from his first and arguably best solo record, Songs For Beginners from 1971.
By then, maybe the term “beginner” wasn’t pertinent to Nash. True, this was Nash’s first foray as a solo artist, transplanted from Manchester to sunny California after having left his band The Hollies in the late sixties. But by this time, he was well established as a native of SoCal, and no stranger to the scene. He was riding pretty high with CSNY, with this record being his next project after the mighty Deja Vu completely solidified the success of the band. Also, Nash had a lot of help on this record from musicians who weren’t exactly babes in the woods either, with members of the Grateful Dead, Traffic, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and a couple of his regular teammates in Neil Young and David Crosby pitching in.
So, what’s all this about “beginners”, then? Well, I suspect the answer to that question had less to do with musical proficiency, career experience, or the road scars that comes with all that. The fact was that by 1971, Nash was starting again for other more personal reasons. Read more
Listen to this track by South African horn master and jazz crossover champeen, Hugh Masekela. It’s “Part Of A Whole”, the opening track on his 1972 landmark album Home Is Where The Music Is.
This cut is practically seething with joy, full of his own lilting trumpet, the energetic and versatile drumming of Makaya Ntshoko and the playful alto sax lines of Dudu Pakwana, along with American jazz musician Larry Willis on Fender Rhodes, and Puerto Rican-born bassist Eddie Gomez filling out the lineup.
It’s hard to imagine this kind of joie d’vive coming out of musicians that hailed from a region of the world that suffered under the oppression of Apartheid. As a musical figure, Masekela rallyed against this dangerous and oppressive political climate that also housed a hotbed of musical delights. In this way this is music that is, in its own way, very political. Further to that, I think that political reach extends outside of South Africa to regions closer to home, too. 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 New York-based art rock and new wave quartet Talking Heads. It’s “Psycho Killer”, an early composition that would eventually appear on the band’s appropriately titled 1977 debut album Talking Heads 77 and become its second single.
The song was released in the winter 1977, months after New York City was menaced by The Son Of Sam, a serial killer later revealed to be one David Berkowitz, who claimed that he was driven to kill six young women at the behest of his neighbor’s dog Harvey, who according to Berkowitz, was actually a demon in dog form. Despite this song seeming to be a direct reference to this series of events, the song actually pre-dates them, written in 1974 around the time the band was formed. Maybe it was chosen as a single because of its relevance during a time when psycho killers were on everyone’s mind.
Singer, guitarist, and co-writer David Byrne has been quoted as saying that this song is about the Alice Cooper meets Randy Newman interior monologue of a single, and very pretentious killer. Yet, I think this suggests something beyond that that has more to do with us listeners than it does with any one bad guy. Read more
Listen to this track by musical chameleon, vocal titan and otherwise folk-jazz-whatever singer-songwriter Tim Buckley. It’s “Song Of The Siren”, the version which appeared on his 1970 album Starsailor.
The song had been around for a while, featuring in particular on his 1968 musical guest appearance on the very last episode of The Monkees TV series, of all things. In that appearance, the song is decidedly folkier and more vocally polite than the one you’re hearing here. Buckley was a restless artist, constantly on the move and seemingly driven to push his own artistic boundaries, sometimes to a fault when considering his commercial footholds, or lack thereof. During his particular era, changing tracks musically, or in fact building one’s own track from scratch, was a trickier thing than it is today. The template for that kind of career wasn’t quite set across the board.
Regardless of all of that, Buckley’s “Song Of The Siren” is one of his best known songs, even if it appeared on an ablum that wasn’t exactly mainstream-friendly. So, was Buckley trying to accomplish by retooling it? Read more
Listen to this track by hitmaking and highly festive British glam-rock purveyors Slade. It’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”, an enormous 1973 hit single that snagged the highly coveted Christmas number one spot on the British charts that year.
The song was an amalgam of elements that writers Noddy Holder and Jim Lea had lying around, from as far back as 1967. This might explain its slightly psychedelic feel. Guitarist and singer Holder had the melody to the chorus, and bassist Lea had the melody to the verses. Holder and Lea fashioned the festive lyrics and the band recorded the song at the Record Plant in New York City in the summer of 1973.
This song would achieve more than just impressive chart showings and eventual platinum sales. Holder’s “It’s Chrrriissssstmas!!” screech would become a personal trademark for years to come during personal appearances in concert and on television. Beyond that, the song would gain a place in the DNA of a whole culture, helping to reveal the values of that culture more precisely at just the right time of year. Read more
Listen to this track by former blues-rock titans turned folk and pop-oriented concern featuring an evolving line up, Fleetwood Mac. It’s “Dust”, a song written by the band’s 21-year old guitarist and vocalist Danny Kirwan, and featured on the band’s 1972 album Bare Trees. The song features lines from a poem of the same name by Rupert Brooke, an Edwardian poet who died in 1915.
Kirwan joined Fleetwood Mac when fellow guitarists and original members Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer were still both in the band. The Then Play On album would feature Kirwan’s dual lead vocals and his emerging talent on the guitar, which was a tall order when considering Green’s enormous stature as a player in particular. By the time the elder guitarist departed the group in 1970, Kirwan was well-established to take his place, or at least become the focus in Green’s absence.
This song is evident of Kirwan’s influence, which was the slow drift away from the blues, and into a more wistful, pastoral, and more radio-friendly direction during a time when folky singer songwriters were making headway when it came to selling records. This song in particular would reveal something else about Kirwan though, and would unfortunately foreshadow his fate at the same time. Read more