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 serial hit single pure pop vocalist and future Solid Gold/Psychic Friends Network TV personality Dionne Warwick. It’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”, her ginormous 1968 hit song as written by herculean songwriting team Burt Bacharach and Hal David with whom Warwick famously collaborated during the 1960s and into the early seventies. The song appears on her LP Dionne Warwick in the Valley of the Dolls.
Lyricist David penned the words to this song after Bacharach wrote the melody. He decided to write about the town of San Jose, California where he’d once been stationed in the navy, having good memories of his time there. Warwick was initially unconvinced of the song’s hit potential. After all, she was following up “I Say A Little Prayer”, yet another huge smash hit, so the pressure was on. Bacharach and David convinced her to record it anyway, and it scored her a third consecutive number one song on the Billboard charts.
Even after decades of performing it, and despite the success it represented for her, Warwick never really warmed to it. She considered it to be fluff. Yet, this song isn’t all that it seems. It’s one of those songs that sounds happy, but isn’t, full of all kinds of pain and heartache under its supremely breezy exterior. Read more
Listen to this song by precocious Kiwi singer-songwriter Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, better known by pop radio fans as Lorde. It’s “Royals”, her smash single as taken from 2013’s Pure Heroine, her debut full-length record. “Royals” released in the summer of 2013 as the forerunner to the album.
When “Royals” hit the airwaves, it defied the very rigid format of commercial radio on a number of fronts; it was not traditionally arranged to the exact specifications of a hit song in 2013, and it enjoyed radio play on pure pop stations as well as alternative stations. It remains to be a singular musical statement that stands out among the great sea of commercial pop music that continues to play things safe when it comes to the way the music is made, how it’s presented, and even its subject matter.
To that last point, this song reveals itself to be something of a generational anthem that calls the assumptions of pop culture into question directly. But it isn’t as simple as being a song about rejecting the lust for fame and riches. This song is more complex than that and not without its cultural trip hazards, either. Read more
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 former sixties London R&B scenester turned cosmically-inclined singer-songwriter David Bowie. It’s “Space Oddity”, a single as taken from his second self-titled 1969 album that would in time be re-titled Space Oddity when it was re-issued in the early seventies. The song would be released on July 11 in the UK, on the same day of the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The BBC held off on playing it until the astronauts returned safely.
For Bowie’s part as far as the approach to writing this song, parallels to science fiction and his journey with fame would begin here, with many other songs and at least one movie role in his future that would explore the same themes. In this case, this dynamic is achieved through his character of Major Tom, a renowned astronaut lauded by the masses, but finding himself isolated and searching for meaning when confronted with the planetary scale of things, all awash in acoustic guitar strumming, jazzy drumming, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s appropriately spacey mellotron lines.
From here, it’s not too difficult to draw parallels between floating in a tin can far above the world, the nature of fame, and of existence in general. Read more
Just that first name alone conjures up so much imagery, so much cultural currency, so much good feeling for generations of people. Born in Tupelo, MS and raised in Memphis TN, Elvis was an eighteen year old who recorded a single at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio for his mum one day in 1953 on the occasion of her birthday as a gift to her; “My Happiness/That’s When The Heartaches Begin“. Who did he sound like? Well, he didn’t sound like nobody. From there, the landscape of popular music, and the barriers that existed between musical genres at the time, would be changed forever. From the cramped studios at Sun Records, to Hollywood movie sets, to Las Vegas residencies, to global satellite transmissions from Hawaiian stages, Elvis weathered all those changes besides.
What also changed was the man himself of course. By the end, he was no longer the earnest American boy with a singular talent for musical interpretation of anything thrown at him. He had become transformed into something more; a cultural avatar of almost religious stature. Those who came after him, carrying legendary mythologies of their own, all held him in the highest esteem. Even to his peers, he was The King; a messianic figure who stood above all of the trends, and enjoying the seemingly unconditional love of the masses up until his death at the young age of 42 on August 16, 1977; thirty-eight years and a day from today in the year that would have had him celebrate his eightieth birthday.
Since his passing, the mythology surrounding Elvis has endured in the imaginations and the works of many. Here are ten songs about Elvis, or at least ones that touch on his cultural importance. Some are down to earth and humourous. Some are profane. Others are almost Biblical in their veneration of that boy from Tupelo who made good. Overall, the range of songwriting styles and musical textures shows that even though he’s gone (or is he?), Elvis’ musical and cultural reach remains extensive even today.
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Listen to this track by former TV band turned actual real life band featured in their own movie, The Monkees. It’s “Porpoise Song”, a 1968 single also to be heard on the soundtrack to the movie Head. The film was directed by The Monkees TV series creator and director Bob Rafaelson who would go on to direct many films into the 1970s, including Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson, who in turn would serve as a screeenwriter on Head. The Monkees TV producer Bert Schneider would also produce the feature. The gang was all here.
In addition to the filmmaking aspect of the project, The Monkees had other allies on this tune, with whom they had a healthy and fruitful relationship; Carole King and Gerry Goffin, who had written a number of other songs in their catalogue, including a hit song in “Pleasant Valley Sunday“. That was during the era in which the band were beamed into living rooms all over the nation. Since that period, they’d cut loose the bonds of their former personas as lovable TV goofs. They had established their own path as a real band without the fuel of a hit TV show to propel them onto the charts.
And yet, with “Porpoise Song” and with Head, that former life was still referenced, although in a more satirical light — or maybe as a way to decompress from it and make their escape once and for all. The results were, perhaps, not as they’d thought. Read more
Listen to this track by Brit-pop rear guard band and early to mid-nineties music industry case-study Sleeper. It’s “Sale Of The Century”, a top ten hit from 1996’s The It Girl. Even if they never made a record as big or as era-defining as Parklife, let’s say, this album is looked upon as their definitive statement during the height of the Brit-pop period, a bona fide platinum-selling record. This one is my favourite of their singles, of which they had eight in the top twenty during their tenure together before the end of the decade.
Sleeper formed at just the right time, and were active on the local scenes in London just as one era was ticking over into another. A record deal seemed to materialize before their eyes. But, by the time “Sale Of The Century” came around, they’d been on the scene playing the parts of jaded pop stars for a year and a half, touring with Blur, REM, and later with Elvis Costello & The Attractions. “Sale Of The Century” can be viewed in a different way when one considers their trajectory, and the mindset of lead singer Louise Wener as the writer and central figure in the eye of their particular storm. Read more
Listen to this track by Atlanta-born singer-songwriter Chan Marshall going under the name for which she is better known, Cat Power. It’s “I Don’t Blame You”, a single as taken from her 2003 album You Are Free. That record was a return to the stage after a three-year hiatus, resulting in her first record of original material since 1998, and her first charting album on the Billboard 100.
This song was the opening song on the album. But, it was the last one recorded on the sessions and was laid down almost as an afterthought. It remains to be Marshall’s personal favourite from the record; a spare and contemplative tale of fame, alienation, and ultimate loneliness. For many years, she was evasive about the central figure in the song, possibly because sometimes it’s often better for an artist not to spell things out for an audience. After all, explanations can change the perception of the work, which can risk undermining its power. In interviews, she said that the song could be about anyone. And really, she’s right. The story to be found here is a common one among those who take the elevator of fame upwards into the stratosphere, only to find that the air up there is often too thin to sustain them.
Eventually, though, the hero of the story was revealed to be he whom many had suspected all along; Kurt Cobain. Read more
Listen to this track by art rock doyen and former Genesis frontman turned re-invented solo artist Peter Gabriel. It’s “Humdrum”, a track as taken from his 1977 solo record, and the first to bear the title Peter Gabriel. In addition to appearing on that record, it would soon be a popular live track as well.
And on this first statement as a solo artist, he had the help of some pros. The record was produced by Bob Ezrin in Toronto, and with sessions at Olympic Studios in Barnes that included a number of musicians you’ve heard of, including Robert Fripp on guitar, and bassist/Chapman stick player Tony Levin.
It’s important to note that this record was fairly long-awaited. Gabriel left Genesis in 1975, and it was a highly publicized departure considering that Gabriel had defined the band’s tone, and presentation. So, how does this song reflect both his role in Genesis and as a singular solo artist, too? Read more