It’s easy to understand why we remember songs when we’ve heard them dozens or hundreds of times. But there are also songs that seize a permanent spot in our memory despite being heard only, say, four or five times.
For me, one of those songs is “Say You” by Ronnie Dove. It barely cracked the Top 40 in late September 1964. It was the last track on the B-side of Ronnie’s Right or Wrong LP — kind of a weird position for a single… The follow-up single, a cover of Wanda Jackson’s great “Right or Wrong,” and a bigger hit, was the last track on side A. (Incidentally, Wanda’s song is another of those I heard only a handful of times back in the day, but never, ever forgot — like “Say You,” it’s one of my favorites.)… Continue reading
For aspiring musicians in the 1960s, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was hugely influential. If Bob Dylan turned rock into “music for adults” on a lyrical level, the Butterfield Band did the same thing musically.
The band had a ferocious, street-tough sound, best heard early on in What’s Shakin’ cuts like “One More Mile” and “Good Morning Little School Girl.” The performances on their first full (eponomously-titled) Elektra album were great, but despite the instruction on the back of the jacket to play it loud*, the sound itself, the production, was a tiny bit distant, as if you were standing at the back of the club. What’s Shakin’ put you right at the front edge of the stage. (I don’t think Butterfield achieved that degree of in-your-face toughness again until 1969’s Keep On Movin’, produced by Jerry Ragovoy.)… Continue reading
In the early 1980s, when I was the guitarist in The Nebulas, one of my main inspirations was John McGeoch’s work in Magazine and the Banshees. Not only his playing, which was and still is some of the most inventive in all of pop/rock, but his skill at orchestrating a song — or an entire album — with his wildly varied guitar sounds. He did this to some extent in Magazine, but there he was sharing space with Dave Formula’s excellent keyboard arrangements. The Banshees were a guitar-bass-drums outfit, so John’s layered guitar parts usually featured the hooks; they carried the songs, instrumentally meshing with Severin’s simple but crucial basslines (check out the Severin-McGeoch harmonies opening “Cascade”) and Budgie’s propulsive drumming.
In fact, I consider Ju Ju one of the greatest guitar albums ever, not because of “guitar hero” showoff pyrotechnics, but precisely because of McGeoch’s inventiveness in orchestrating the songs — and his skill at translating his ideas to the fretboard (and incidently, although some of his riffs may seem simple, they are not easy to play well!).… Continue reading
If you had been leafing through Rolling Stone in 1970, this A&M Records ad for the latest Joe Cocker single might’ve caught your eye:
The visual pun stuck in my mind; years later I googled and found the image (it doesn’t seem to be online any more). The song, written and recorded by Leon Russell the year before, fits in two traditions, which can also be thought of as two fantasies:
1. Back to the Garden, which in ’69 would’ve meant Eden/Woodstock, Nature.
Please don’t ask how many times I found you
Standing wet and naked in the garden…
The country vs. the city (countless songs about this at the time) was a big part of the Garden myth:
There are concrete mountains in the city
And pretty city women live inside them
And yet it seems the city scene is lacking
I’m so glad you’re waiting for me in the country
2.… Continue reading
There’s an art to making a catchy pop song in an odd time signature — “odd” meaning something other than the vastly popular 4/4 and 3/4 (“waltz time”) meters. Despite the overwhelming popularity of those two meters, if a great song has time changes that flow naturally, no reason it can’t top the charts.
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” (1959) was the pioneer, a huge hit in 5/4 time (counted “ONE-two-three-ONE two” — listen for the kick drum on those “ones”).
The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” shifts from 4/4 to 3/4 (or 6/8) in the turnaround (the phrase “Strawberry Fields Forever”), with a possible bar of 7 thrown in…
Redbone’s “Witch Queen of New Orleans” (1971) is in 4/4, but adds in a bar of 2/4 — that little hiccup — after every other measure in the chorus:
Marie Marie la voodoo veau
She’ll put a spell on you (hiccup)
The Beatles went crazy in “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” — you can hear 4/4, 3/4, 5/4, maybe 9/8, 10/8, — all over the place.… Continue reading
Some song lyrics are cryptic, but we don’t need to “figure out” the meaning. We can suspend disbelief and just live in the mood or the world they create.
“Here At The Western World” is certainly an oblique lyric (like those of most Steely Dan songs), but it’s one of those where the details are so specific, and hang together so well, that it’s hard to resist trying to sleuth out the story.
The music is laid back, smooth, almost innocuous (but this is SD, so the lyrics scratch the surface to reveal the darkness underneath). There’s an implied bossa nova rhythm (similar to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”/“Song for My Father”), which brings us to… South America.
No way could I pin down this song’s meaning on my own, so I googled a few times over the years, and found that the most coherent explication was this: it’s about Nazi war criminals who found refuge in South America after the war.… Continue reading