John Lennon is Alive

Here’s a clip of the fresh-faced suited-and-Beatle-booted Beatles with the greatest opening track ever to grace one of their albums.  It is perhaps the greatest opening track on any album.  It’s “It Won’t Be Long” which appeared on their 1963 Parlophone  release With the Beatles. In North America, the song opened the album Meet The Beatles, released on Capitol. It is one of my top ten Beatles songs.

Well, it’s December 8th again. A few years ago I wrote a post about the circumstances and my feelings when my Grandma told me that John Lennon had been shot.   To say I felt saddened doesn’t quite cover it. I felt betrayed.  It was as if someone had killed someone in my immediate family.

OK.  Here it is.  I love John Lennon. I love all four of those guys. And this year, I don’t feel sad about his assassination.  I feel defiant.

Because John Lennon is Alive.  He is the reason I learned to play guitar, began to love all music, began to write this blog.  And his music has worked its way into my DNA over the course of my entire life.  I will pass it along to my daughter, who’s three right now.  And he’ll be more alive than ever.

So fuck the darkness. Fuck despair too.  Fuck anything that gets in the way of what the guy created in the minds and hearts of millions.  And fuck the idea that he’s dead.  He’s fucking not.

John Lennon is alive.  I can hear him.

Happy December 8th, Beatle-heads.  In the cheap seats, clap your hands.  Everyone else just rattle your jewelry.

Enjoy!

The Zombies Perform ‘Whenever You’re Ready’

Here’s a clip of underrated Hertfordshire natives and 60s British Invasion melodists The Zombies with their 1965 single “Whenever You’re Ready”, a smash hit that should have been.  This lack of wider success is perhaps indicative of the Zombies career in general, all but for their later hit “Time of the Season”, the song for which they are best known.

The Zombies were formed in St. Albans, England in 1961, a bedroom community just north of London.  The group toured locally while all of the members were still in school, signing to Decca records in 1964, and scoring their first hit “She’s Not There” that same year.  Despite their middle-class upbringings and somewhat manner delivery, The Zombies were R&B enthusiasts, recording versions of “You Really Got A Hold on Me”, “Road Runner”, and “Got My Mojo Workin’”.  They would expand their palette of covers versions with a superlative version of the Bacharach/David classic “The Look of Love”, later immortalized by fellow Brit Dusty Springfield.
The Zombies were formed in St. Albans, England in 1961, a bedroom community just north of London. The group toured locally while all of the members were still in school, signing to Decca records in 1964, and scoring their first hit “She’s Not There” that same year. Despite their middle-class upbringings and somewhat mannered delivery, The Zombies were R&B enthusiasts, recording versions of Smokey Robinson's “You Really Got A Hold on Me”, Bo Diddley's “Road Runner”, and Muddy Waters' “Got My Mojo Workin’”. In addition to writing their own material, they would continue to expand their palette of cover versions with a superlative take on the Bacharach/David classic “The Look of Love”, later immortalized by fellow Brit Dusty Springfield.

These guys are often thought of as the runts of the British Invasion litter; a bit too middle-class, a little too English for an R&B beat group maybe, and too many members with NHS glasses, looking too brainy to really be dangerous rock stars.  And it’s true that there was no Mick Jagger figure in this band to provide visual stimuli, no sexual provocateurs for parents to be afraid of, and for girls and boys to yearn for.  Instead, these guys looked like  hall monitors, or members of the school chess club.  At least the Beatles had Lennon’s acidic wit and disregard for the establishment to offset the smart suits and clean hair of the early Beatles image.  Yet, this band was about melody and tight playing, not the accouterments of pop star personas.  Who knows; maybe their nerdy image is the only thing that stopped them.  It certainly couldn’t have been the music.

“Whenever You’re Ready” is one of my favourites by this band, perfectly framing them as sensitive lyricists, and with tough playing, and fantastic singing that really sets them apart.  Rod Argent’s jazz-influenced keyboard solo rips it up, and Colin Blunstone’s boyish-and-breathy lead vocal leaps from a whisper to a scream.  Hugh Grundy’s latin-flavoured drumming on this tune alone makes him one of the most underrated drummers of the era in my book.  As for the songwriting, this is a love song with a lot of tension, a break up song that infuses respect for another in with the hurt of separation, which was a fairly advanced idea to capture for writers as young as these guys were at the time.

The group had so many assets, with an ear for melody and the chops to deliver it clearly as their main strength. They had early success with the 1964 single “She’s Not There“, which is another tune of theirs which most casual listeners have at least heard, even if they don’t know who the Zombies are.  Yet, their music scared record buyers and radio programers away like bug spray, particularly in Britain where they scored only one top 40 hit in “She’s Not There”.  Maybe it was for the reasons I mentioned; that too many media outlets and labels were obsessed with image – who knows? They should have been A-listers.  Yet, the stars just didn’t align for the Zombies.

Their most famous single almost sank without a trace. “Time of the Season” was recorded in August 1967 at Abbey Road, not too long after Sgt.Pepper was recorded there. This meant that the studio allowed the band to use the same set up that was put together for Pepper, to wit: use of a mellotron, and two four track recorders “lashed together”, rendering a more expansive sound than ever before.  The song builds on what they’d done before with “Whenever You’re Ready”, with a similar “Stand By Me” bass riff, latin-jazz drumming from Grundy, and of course superb singing from Blunstone, only matched by Rod Argent’s jazzy organ breaks.   When the single and the album Odessey and Oracle was completed, it was shopped to the States for a planned release through Columbia Records.  The label turned it down, but not before Al Kooper, who had an ‘in’ with the label in the States as an A&R man heard it.  He proclaimed that the label were “idiots” not to release it.  As such, he set about making sure it would happen.

But, there was a problem – the group had broken up by the end of 1967.  And who could blame them? After writing and recording fantastic singles that did nothing on the charts, they were burnt out.  Yet, Kooper was right about ‘Time of the Season’. By early ’69, it was a North American hit, even if the album sold poorly.  After the break-up of the group, Rod Argent and bassist Chris White worked to remix the album for a US audience, encouraged by the success of the single and it is now a classic of the decade, held in high esteem by every music publication who ever produced a ‘best albums ever” list.

But despite the success of the single, the band members had moved on.  By the next decade, Rod Argent had formed his proto-prog band Argent (‘Hold Your Head Up” being their biggest hit), and the others went back to getting straight jobs.  Colin Blunstone worked as an insurance claims clerk for a year, before getting back into a recording career with his classic, and underexposed, solo album One Year in 1971.  In the ensuing years, a number of false Zombies touring groups popped up in an effort to take advantage of the success of “Time of the Season” and of the relative anonymity of the original band members who created it.  The faux-Zombies were revealed to be frauds, and the original group remained on hiatus, despite offers made to them to reform.

More recently, Blunstone and Argent have reconvened as the Zombies, with a Zombies reunion performance at Sheppard’s Bush Empire in London which reunited all of the original members except guitarist Paul Atkinson who died in 2004.  The show was in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Odessey & Oracle.  Argent and Blunstone are currently touring as the Zombies with supplementary players.

For more music and information, check out The Zombies MySpace Page.

Enjoy!

Tea, Anyone? – A 60s British Invasion Mix Tape

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1. Dave Clark Five – Glad All Over
2. The Beatles – You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me
3. The Searchers – Needles and Pins
4. The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset
5. The Rolling Stones – The Last Time
6. The Spencer Davis Group – Every Little Bit Hurts
7. The Zombies – Summertime
8. The Small Faces – Itchycoo Park
9. The Who – Pinball wizard
10. The Pretty Things – S.F. Sorrow Is Born

R&B legend and Beatles-favourite Larry Williams performs “Slow Down”

Here’s a clip featuring R&B foot soldier and Beatles-favourite Larry Williams with his 1958 hit, “Slow Down”.

Williams was solidly of the R&B school, eschewing guitar-centric rock ‘n’ roll in favour of traditional R&B instrumentation – piano & sax as leads, with the guitar used mostly as a rhythm instrument. But, like Chuck Berry, he was an original songwriter, showing himself to be a gifted conveyor of bluesy grit and sexually-explosive 12-bar fury.

Larry Williams, R&B legend beloved of the Beatles who helped to inspire the British Invasion in the 1960s
Larry Williams, R&B legend beloved of the Beatles who helped to inspire the British Invasion in the 1960s

Larry Williams, like Fats Domino, was based in New Orleans, yet missed the fame train that made Domino a star. Part of this had to do with his involvement in drugs, and his alleged inclination towards violence. Yet, his records were very popular in the Britain, celebrated by those who wanted the genuine article when it came to the kind of gritty rhythm & blues they were hearing on Radio Luxembourg. Williams delivered the goods, with this song and those in that shared its intensity being heavily covered by first-tier British beat groups: “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” (the Beatles), “She Said Yeah” (the Rolling Stones), and “Bony Maronie” (The Who), just to name three. Williams was a key artist that drove the eventual R&B boom in England at the beginning of the 60s, which of course led to what is now known as “The British Invasion” by 1964.

“Slow Down” would be covered by a great many artists across the rock spectrum and across the decades including The Young Rascals, Blodwyn Pig, The Jam, and Brian May. It would also be featured in the Beatles bio-pic Backbeat, being as it was a key song in their repertoire while the band played the Hamburg club circuit. The Fabs would record it as a cut on their UK Long Tall Sally EP in 1964. Their version of the song also appears on Capitol Records release, Something New, and the UK compilation Past Masters, Vol.1.

Enjoy!

Happy Birthday, Paul McCartney

Happy birthday to the cute one – Beatle Paul!

young Paul McCartneyJames Paul McCartney was born in Liverpool this day in 1942, to a part-time musician father and a mother who was a nurse. McCartney would follow in his father’s footsteps as a musician, although he left behind the trumpet in favour of the guitar. He met 16 year old John Lennon at Woolton Fete in 1956, watching John’s band The Quarrymen make up their own versions of popular skiffle favourites for the crowd. At the end of the show, Paul tuned John’s guitar for him (which made an impression), and then played Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty-Flight Rock”. After that, he was in the band. Later, Paul encouraged his school friend George Harrison to bang out a version of Duane Eddy’s “Raunchy” for John while they all road together on the top level of a Liverpool double decker bus. Then, George was in too.

The band gigged around town, and was picked up by a local promoter to go abroad to play rock n’ roll in Hamburg night clubs. The group was a quintet, with Pete Best on drums, and Stu Sutcliffe on bass guitar. Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison played guitars and did so for eight hours at a stretch for the patrons of the seedy Reeperbahn section of Hamburg, kept upright only through the use of uppers. Later, McCartney would pick up the bass and make the instrument his own in the earliest version of the Beatles when former bassist Stu Sutcliffe (who never really played) decided to quit the group in order to pursue an art career in Hamburg. The swtich was successful, as was the band (now a foursome) who went on to become arguably the greatest rock band ever.

After sacking Pete Best in favour of Ringo Starr who was another Liverpudlian drummer they’d met in Hamburg, the group was signed to the EMI-owned label Parlophone in 1962. After they signed and formed a relationship with producer George Martin (a perennial McCartney collaborator even after the Beatles broke up), they scored a number of UK hits, then going on to break America with the Lennon/McCartney original “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. In February 1964, the band consolidated their hold on the record buying teen market when they appeared on the National broadcast of the Ed Sullivan show on February 9th of that year. They would later break away from writing strictly for teen audiences, and begin writing for their own peers, and for themselves too, which indirectly raised the artistic profile of pop music as a whole from that point on.

The BeatlesMcCartney was turned on by rock n’ roll while still in grammar school – most notably by Buddy Holly who was a songwriting role model, and Little Richard, who informed Paul’s own rock n’ roll shout which served him well in songs like “I’m Down” from the Help soundtrack, “Helter Skelter” and many others. His voice could also be sweet, which informed love songs like “And I Love Her”, “Here, There, and Everywhere” and “Golden Slumbers”. Of all the Beatles, McCartney was probably the most well-rounded musician in the band, playing bass, guitars, piano, and even drums when Ringo wasn’t available. His songwriting partnership with John Lennon, which was really more of a healthy competition than it was a collaboration, produced some of the most famous songs in the world, covered by artists ranging from country/easy listening chanteuse Anne Murray to gothic rock band Laibach.

While in the Beatles, McCartney spearheaded their most ambitious album in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, took the lion’s share of the directing of the Beatles’ TV film Magical Mystery Tour, and was the first of the Beatles to admit to the press that he’d taken LSD. Starting in the mid-60s, rumours abounded that he’d died in a car crash and had been replaced by a lookalike – the Paul is Dead rumours.

After the release of the band’s final album Abbey Road, which featured the famed “medley side” that McCartney had championed, The Beatles broke up in April 1970, although their partnership wasn’t fully dissolved until 1974. McCartney would go on to enjoy the most success as a solo artist of all the Beatles. He would score nine number one singles, and seven number one albums during the 70s and early 80s, and would be entered into the Guinness World Book of Records for the world’s most successful songwriter, with his “Yesterday” as the world’s most popular song.

In 1970, he released his first solo album, McCartney which was recorded entirely solo while at home. Some of the songs were recorded in his bathroom for the acoustics. Songs like “Every Night” and “Junk” were understated gems. And his power ballad “Maybe I’m Amazed” stands as one of the best songs he’s ever written. In the 1970s, he made records with his wife Linda (neé Eastman) whom he’d married in March of 1969, a partnership that would last until her death from cancer in 1998. The best of these musical collaborations was 1971’s Ram, which featured the songs “Too Many People”, “Dear Boy”, “Back Seat of My Car”, and the whimsical “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” which was an unlikely hit. He formed another band, Wings, with former Moody Blues singer Denny Laine, and recorded a James Bond theme, “Live and Let Die” in 1973.

Paul McCartney WingsMcCartney recorded Band on the Run in Nigeria that year, and had his greatest success with it to date with the title track and another single, “Jet” both getting top ten status on American and British radio and the album going triple platinum. Even Lennon liked Band on the Run ! He toured America in 1976 on the back of his smash hit “Silly Love Songs” and recorded the live album Wings Over America, one of the singles being a live cut of his early solo song “Maybe I’m Amazed”, which is arguably the definitive version. In 1978, Wings recorded “Mull of Kintyre”, which is one of the best selling British singles of all time. Soon after the release of his 1980 solo album McCartney 2, Paul was jailed in Japan for possession of marijuana for ten days, only to be released without charge.

During the 80s, he would have some success in collaboration with both Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder on separate tracks, although his Beatles fans weren’t as impressed as the greater record-buying public were. Jackson and McCartney fell out by 1985, when Michael Jackson bought the rights to the Beatles catalogue and wouldn’t negotiate a sale.

By the end of the 1980s, McCartney collaborated with Elvis Costello. Some of their songs were written especially for McCartney’s 1988 album Flowers in the Dirt, and others initially appeared on two of Costello’s albums – Spike, and later on Mighty Like a Rose. These collaborations didn’t have the same immediate commercial success when compared with songs like “Say, Say, Say” (McCartney’s last career number one single to date), but McCartney’s credibility was vastly improved by the Costello association. Two more albums would feature McCartney and MacManus (Costello’s real last name) songs – Macca’s Off the Ground in 1993, and Costello’s All This Useless Beauty in 1996.

Beatles AnthologyBy the early 90s, McCartney began work on what would become the Beatles Anthology project along with former bandmates George Harrison and Ringo Starr. The project was a documentary made for television about the Beatles, narrated by the Beatles themselves. A coffee table book was also produced as a companion item to the series, along with three volumes of two-disc compilations, outlining the bands’ career from the earliest homemade recordings to alternate versions of popular songs, to unreleased tracks. Contributions from key Apple Corps head, early road manager, and childhood friend to the band Neil Aspinall were also included to round out the narrative of the band’s mythic rise and fall. The television show was broadcast in 1995 to warm critical reactions.

The project produced another significant outcome – two new Beatles singles – “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”. Both songs were John Lennon demos which had been submitted with approval by Yoko Ono, which the other Beatles embellished, creating the finished tracks with the help of producer, former ELO frontman, and Beatles enthusiast Jeff Lynne. The music video of “Free As A Bird” evokes the best of the group, an affectionate tribute to what they had created as a band.

The Anthology project helped to ignite McCartney’s interest in recording a solid album of original songs, which resulted in his best studio effort in years, Flaming Pie, in 1997 which McCartney once again recorded with his son James on electric guitar, Jeff Lynne on various instruments, guitarist Steve Miller, and for the last time, Linda McCartney taking pictures and singing back-up. Among many songs on the album, the most poignant would be his love song “Calico Skies”, one of the finest love songs he’d ever written. The album’s title was a reference to an early John Lennon piece published in Merseybeat fan magazine in the early 60s in which, when addressing the question as to where the name “Beatles” came from, John wrote:

… it came in a vision. A man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them “from this day forth, you are Beatles with an ‘A’. “Thank you, mister man,” they said, thanking him.

The record was the end of an era. Linda died the next year.

Sir Paul McCartneyAfter Linda’s death, Paul continued to be busy, releasing rock albums as well as classical ones, along with continuing involvement in various charity efforts. In 2002, he married former model and self-styled activist and charity worker Heather Mills. They divorced acrimoniously in 2007, with final settlement this year. His Grammy-winning 2005 album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, recorded solo with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich at the controls, was not only one of the best albums of his solo career, but one of the best released that year by anyone. His follow-up Memory Almost Full had been started before the Chaos and Creation sessions with a full band. It was the first album released on the Starbucks record label.

When I was young, I wanted to be Paul McCartney. I wanted to look like him, sing like him, and be a musician like him. I used to sing “I Saw Her Standing There” in the shower, dreaming of rock stardom. I learned to play guitar so that I could play Beatles songs.

Paul is still one of my heroes.

Happy birthday, Macca! Thanks for all of the little ditties and good dreams!

***

Here’s a recent interview with Paul McCartney as shown on Jools Holland’s Later program, which talks about his recent single “Dance Tonight”, Wings, and the Beatles too. And here’s the segment of Paul performing “I’ve Got A Feeling” as referenced in that interview. That song of course is originally taken from the Beatles’ Let it Be, one of the last songs the group performed live, doing so on the rooftops of Apple Corps in January of 1969.

And for those of you who have just woken up from a 45 year coma and want to get caught up, here’s the Paul McCartney MySpace page.

The official Paul McCartney site has even more goodies for fans to appreciate. Send Paul your regards.

Enjoy!, thanking him..

The Kinks Sing “Sunny Afternoon” from 1966

The Kinks Face to FaceHere’s a clip of the Kinks performing their 1966 hit, “Sunny Afternoon”, a tale of a rich man who finds himself poor in spirit. The song is taken from the album Face to Face.

The concept of the debauched rock star is a pretty new idea, historically speaking. And this is one of the earliest examples I can think of in pop music. In this tune, we’ve got the central figure of the rich, spoilt rock star left to his own devices when his girlfriend leaves to return home to her parents, “telling tales of drunkeness and cruelty”. Yet, this is of little concern to him, “sipping at my ice cold beer/lazing on a sunny afternoon in the summertime”. This is a classic Ray Davies character study, which can be viewed as a snapshot of British upper-middle class life, or as a commentary on the burgeoning ‘rock lifestyle‘ which would soon come to be synonymous with the life of professional musicians – monetary prosperity at the cost of a stable home life.

Stylistically, the Kinks at this point were beginning to branch out from the British beat combo sound. From here, British Music Hall textures begin to make their presence known, which established Ray Davies as a master of his own sound. This would be a general shift, influencing releases from contemporaries as well – both The Who Sell Out, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, both from 1967, would borrow from Davies’ approach.