Category Archives: music

Trip Report? Well . . . okay. Go.

I haven’t posted anything about my trip out to Los Angeles back on August 9 — but that was because I got to see something really extraordinary that I couldn’t talk about until things were officially Official.

They’re official now, and they have to do with this:

Click here for the video (I’d embed it, only WordPress Hates Vevo). More later.

Not Fade Away

winterdancepartyposter1959February 3, 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the day a single engine Beechcraft Bonanza B35 airplane plummeted to the earth in a frostbitten cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa. On board were three musicians who, only a few hours earlier, had rocked the stage in Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom: Ritchie Valens, J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Buddy Holly.

I’m nowhere near old enough to do the whole “Where were you on the day the music died?” thing (to put it in equally iconic musical terms, I was born eight years later, the summer Sgt. Pepper came out), but as a biographer – and because it’s just plain fascinating – I’m always interested in seeing how iconic events were reported in their time, before events could be colored or tainted by hindsight, adulation, and wishful thinking.

Years ago, I went to the library and pulled the microfiche of the February 4, 1959 Albuquerque Journal and several other papers to see how the crash was being reported by the media — which at that time had only a yawning interest in what it considered the passing fad of the fledgling rock and roll scene. The crash received quite a bit of coverage, with most newspapers going with the UPI story, which devoted the first third of its coverage to an almost clinical description of the crash and the crash site (the UPI reports, for instance, that the plane “skidded across the snow for 558 feet”).

Given what we now know and accept as their relative places in the rock’n’roll pantheon, what’s really interesting is how little ink Buddy Holly earns in the press coverage. That’s probably because, of the three performers killed, Holly – whose “I Guess It Doesn’t Matter Any More” had made it to number 13 in January – hadn’t had a monster hit since September 1957, when “Everyday” peaked at #3 (incredibly, five months earlier, “It’s So Easy” had stalled out at a rancid #82). Meanwhile, Richardson’s “Chantilly Lace” had hit #6 the previous summer, while Valens’ “Donna” was sitting at number 4 on the charts the week he was killed – Valens, in fact, gets most of the column inches, where his death is grieved as the loss of “the next Elvis Presley”:


Fifty years later, even as all three can be assured of their iconic stature, we’re still fascinated by the poetic tragedy of that winter morning — thanks in no small part to Don McLean, who gave the moment a nearly Biblical heft in “American Pie.” We play the “what if?” game — especially with Holly, who seemed to be bending and breaking the rules of rock and roll almost daily.

And like any good iconic moment in time, there always seems to be a new legend or rumor associated with it. As recently as two years ago, the body of Richardson was exhumed to try to put to rest one of the Great Conspiracies tying together two odd elements of the crash: the discovery in the cornfield several months later of a gun registered to Buddy Holly, and the fact that Richardson’s body was found farther away from the crash site than the others. The rumor was that Holly’s gun had accidentally discharged during takeoff, killing the pilot and causing the crash – a crash Richardson survived, before staggering away from the plane and dying of exposure.

To the dismay of conspiracy theorists everywhere, forensic anthropoligst Bill Bass, who performed the autopsy on Richardson’s remains, concluded that, “He did not crawl from the plane. He died of massive fractures.”  Sorry.

Take a moment today to think about Buddy, Ritchie, and J.P. But more than anything, don’t think of the way they died; remember the way they lived, and the music they loved.

A love for real not fade away.

Carnival of Light

Over the weekend, Paul McCartney announced his intention to release a 40-year-old “lost” Beatles track, a 14-minute avant garde piece assembled by McCartney — with an assist from John Lennon — called “Carnival of Light.” As reported by the London Guardian, the track was never released — not even for the deep-drilling Anthology collection — “because three of the Fab Four thought it too adventurous.”

As a Beatles completist, you can be sure I’ll buy anything Sir Paul wants to release. But will the track be worth listening to? Here’s what I know about it:

In 1967, Paul McCartney was asked by his friend, the artist and journalist Barry Miles, to assemble a soundtrack for an electronic musical festival to be held that winter at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. McCartney — whose taste for the avant garde had been spawned and whetted largely through his relationship with the actress Jane Asher and a number of her artistic acquaintances — eagerly agreed to submit a piece. On January 5, 1967 — as the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on “Penny Lane” — McCartney persuaded his bandmates to dedicate a few moments to laying down an avant garde soundtrack.

“We were set up in the studio and would just go in every day and record,” McCartney told the BBC. “I said to the guys, this is a bit indulgent but would you mind giving me 10 minutes? I’ve been asked to do this thing. All I want you to do is just wander round all of the stuff and bang it, shout, play it. It doesn’t need to make any sense. Hit a drum, wander to the piano, hit a few notes … and then we put a bit of echo on it.”

The banging away in Abbey Road’s Studio 2 lasted for 13 minutes and 48 seconds — at that time, the longest uninterrupted track the Beatles had ever recorded. Here’s what Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn says about the recording session:

“…it was a combination of a basic track and numerous overdubs. Track one of the tape was full of distorted, hypnotic drum and organ sounds; track two had a distorted lead guitar; track three had the sounds of a church organ, various effects (the gargling of water was one) and voices; track four featured various indescribable sound effects with heaps of tape echo and manic tambourine.

“But of all the frigthening sounds it was the voices on track three which really set the scene, John and Paul screaming dementedly and bawling aloud random phrases like ‘Are you all right?’ and ‘Barcelona!’

“Paul terminated the proceedings after almost 14 minutes with one final shout up the control room: ‘Can we hear it back now?'”

According to Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ go-to recording engineer, neither he nor producer George Martin was all that impressed with what they heard. “When they had finished,” recalled Emerick, “George Martin said to me, ‘This is ridiculous, we’ve got to get our teeth into something a little more constructive.'”

When asked about the track twenty years later, Martin claimed not to remember the recording session (“..and it sounds like I don’t want to, either!” he joked). But when asked about the track again recently, his response was more diplomatic. “It was a kind of uncomposed, free-for-all melange of sound that went on,” said Martin. “It was not considered worthy of issuing as a normal piece of Beatles music at the time and was put away.”

McCartney apparently lobbied for its inclusion on Anthology, but was vetoed by the other Beatles. Their attitude, McCartney said, was “‘this is rubbish.'”

McCartney’s announcement has caused a bit of a dither in the Beatles fanbase — some are excited by the idea of a new track, while others accuse Sir Paul of going to the Beatles vault once too often, milking the Beatle legacy for another quick buck. I’ll willingly admit to falling more into the former camp — I’m always interested in hearing what was left on the cutting room floor or given up for dead, as this track apparently was — and I’ll eagerly pick up anything they want to release. If it’s unlistenable, I’ll simply treat it as I do pieces like “Revolution 9” and “Flying”: when they pop up on the iPod, I’ll just push the Forward button.

I’m a Beatles Completist, McCartney Enabler, and, apparently, part of the problem. But I’ll gladly take “Carnival of Light.”

The Guardian article can be found here. And, closer to home, you can see The Washington Post‘s take on the story right here.

Gonna Keep On, Keep On, Keep On Groovin’…

We’ve all got them in our CD collections: those discs we’re embarassed to own and will either make excuses for (“I got it for a buck!”) or outright lie about (“Er, that’s not mine…”) if anyone finds it in the CD cabinet.

I’ve got quirky enough tastes in music that I’ll even ‘fess up to purchasing — and enjoying — CDs like Neil Sedaka’s The Hungry Years or Toto: Past to Present (1977-1990). Even something like Orleans’ Waking and Dreaming is a keeper — after all, it’s got “Still the One” on it — once you get past the worst album cover of all time.

Still, there are some discs that I love but can’t help making up some excuse for why they’re in my collection. Usually it’s my wife who gets splattered by the shrapnel of the cover story. “Best of Barry Manilow???” my friend will say incredulously, holding up a CD with Barry staring androgynously outward, eyes heavy with glittery eyeshadow. “Uh . . . that’s Barb’s,” I’ll reply, despite the fact it’s been in my collection since 1990.

Anyway, here are three more discs that I love, yet will completely disavow:

First, there’s It’s A Sunshine Day: Best of the Brady Bunch. Oh yes, it’s as dumb as you think it is. Naturally, it’s got the Bunch singing “Keep On,” “It’s A Sunshine Day,” and “Time to Change.” But it’s also got some unappreciated gems like “Candy (Sugar Shoppe)” (with Barry Williams trying — and failing — to rock out) and “Merry-Go-Round.” And what’s not to love about a Brady Bunch version of Don McLean’s “American Pie”? Classic.

Next, it’s K.D., er, k.d. lang’s Ingenue, an album I purchased not for the single “Constant Craving,” but rather for the retro-campy “Miss Chatelaine.” And only k.d. lang would describe her look in the song’s video — in which she wore a classy 1930s-era frilly ball gown — as “dressing in drag.” Say what you will, it’s still a terrific album, though one I always try to hide by mixing it in among my Jonny Lang discs.

Finally, there’s the self-titled Buster Poindexter, the retro-cool persona of New York Dolls front man David Johansen. Buster was several years ahead of the swing revival of the early 90s and therefore never really got the play he deserved, though he’s now made a comeback, of sorts, as “jump blues.” “Hot Hot Hot” may have been the hit single (it was sort of the “Macaraena” of the late 1980s), but there were also a killer versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Smack Dab in the Middle.” How you feelin’? Why, hot, hot, hot, of course.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to the Little River Band’s Greatest Hits. It’s Barb’s. Really.

Guilty Pleasures

I’m a great fan of Sirius satellite radio. I can’t stand the commercials on terrestrial radio any more — if I get in the car to drive to Home Depot just as regular radio goes into a break, chances are good they’ll still be playing commercials by the time I reach my destination 15 minutes later. And when they do come back from a break, the brainless patter of deejays makes me so crazy that I generally spend most of my time yelling at the jock to SHUT THE F*** UP AND PLAY SOME MUSIC! And then, of course, there’s the music: the same old limited playlist of the same old tired songs. I can say with confidence that it was overplay of the Supremes’ “Stop In The Name of Love” and the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown” that drove me to satellite several years ago. And the fact that Howard Stern had announced he was heading to Sirius only made the XM/Sirius choice that much easier for me.

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that I love satellite radio. My particular model of radio has a function called “S-Seek,” in which you can program the radio to alert you when one of thirty of your favorite songs comes on. At the press of a button, you’ll be whizzed over to the station that’s getting ready to play your song of choice.

And I realized today, as I was driving to Rockville, that most of my S-Seeks are, to put it bluntly, quite lame.

What they all are, I realized, are guilty pleasures — songs that I love to hear and (God help you) sing along with. Some are one-hit wonders, while others are just plain dopey songs that the artists themselves would probably just as soon forget. Still others are good songs, but the kind that no card carrying middle-aged straight guy should be squealing about when they come on the air.

So without further ado, here are my Top Five Guilty Pleasures (as determined by my Sirius Radio S-Seek Function):

(5) “Bad Blood” (Neil Sedaka)

With its opening synthesized bass notes and Elton John-assisted harmonies in the chorus, what’s not to love about this mostly forgotten chunk of well-produced 1970s pop from one of the Brill Building’s tin pan alley icons? Bonus points as well for Sedaka’s almost too-enthusiastic enunciation on the word “bitch.”

(4) “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (Elton John & Kiki Dee)

Another Elton John assist, this time on a catchy call-and-response notable for its complete lack of sexual tension, especially for a song allegely about heartbreak. Yet, the hook is irresistable — it’s impossible not to sing “woooo hooo…” at the chorus. Just try.

(3) “Don’t You Want Me” (Human League)

My wife often teases me about what she calls my “mod” tastes in 80s music, and this song probably epitomizes those tastes. No drums or guitars, only heavy synthesizers (hey! that was part of their novelty!), and a plot straight out of A Star is Born, with lyrics all but screamed by frontman Philip Oakley. And the fact that I know the name of the lead singer makes me want to punch myself right in the area.

(2) “Head Over Heels” (Go-Go’s)

You can have your “We Got The Beat” and “Vacation” — to me, this is the finest Go-Go’s song ever produced. It’s a clean sounding track, with well-placed back-up harmonies, and a strong vocal from Belinda Carlisle, but it’s the little quirks in the song that really sell it. There’s heavy piano, a bass guitar solo(!), and, the icing on the cake, handclaps — which arrive on a half-beat — in the chorus. Go ahead: try to clap along. I’ll just point and laugh.

(1) “Afternoon Delight” (Starland Vocal Band)

I loved this song as I kid, and I’m still a sucker for it today. It took me years to even realize that the lyrics were suggestive — I thought for a long time that the fireworks themselves were the “afternoon delight.” Oooh! Ahh! — I was more impressed with the acoustic sound and the harmonies. To this day, when it comes on the radio, I try to pick a harmony part to sing and see if I can stay with it for the entire song. I hate myself.

What are YOUR guilty pleasures, hmmm?