Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Power of Ten

Is there anyone, anywhere, who thinks that this plan to announce ten Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards rather than the traditional five is a good idea? Certainly it has occurred to someone at the Academy that if every movie is a contender for Best Picture, then the distinction has no meaning.

What's going to happen next spring is that the Oscars will announce the ten Best Picture candidates, and before the producers of those films even have a chance to congratulate themselves, the story will become which movie didn't get nominated: Up, or Away We Go, or Night at the Museum 2: Another Night at the Museum. No one will much care who did get nominated, because when you're throwing a party that big, the most interesting part is who wasn't invited.

And then by the night of the Big Dance, no one east of Nikki Finke will even be able to remember which ten movies are up for the top prize. Every single person watching the awards ceremony will say to themselves, at least once, "That got nominated? No way." There will be no attendance bounce for any of the nominees. And even the winner will end up being screwy, because when you have people voting from a slate of ten names, the winner is going to be the movie favored by something like 19 percent of the voters. Well, I guess it couldn't be any worse than Crash.

I give this thing two years, tops.

I Want You Back

It's hard to overstate what the Jackson 5 meant to Motown when they signed with the label in 1969. The Four Tops, the Supremes, the Miracles, all were getting long in the tooth, and had one Top Ten hit left among them after 1970 (the Tops' "Ain't No Woman [Like the One I've Got]" from 1973). Holland-Dozier-Holland had long since left. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were both itching to create their own music, free from the Motown corporate constraints.

So when the Jackson 5 came along, everyone instinctively knew that this was the next generation of Motown stars. Diana Ross was installed as their official patron, and a writing-producing team called the Corporation was created to shepherd their music. The Corporation was a group of four gentlemen, one of them Motown founder Berry Gordy, who had long since left behind his hands-on in-studio duties. He had co-written "Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops" for Jackie Wilson and "Money" for Barrett Strong, but that seemed like a long time ago, and one could be forgiven for wondering if Gordy still had his chops.

Till the Jackson 5 took over the world. Their first single, "I Want You Back," went to Number One in January 1970. Their next single, "ABC," also went to Number One. Their next single, "The Love You Save," also went to Number One. The one after that, "I'll Be There," also went to Number One. That brings us to 1971. The Jackson 5 were so good, and so popular, that MGM had a bunch of Mormons from Utah do a note-for-note imitation of the Jackson 5, and that went to Number One, too.

At the end of 1970, Michael Jackson was eleven years old, and if he had never done another thing in the world of music, he'd still be a legend. Say, say say what you want about his personal life, but those Jackson 5 records sound as fresh and exciting today as they ever did, as any pop records ever did. All the little birdies down on Jaybird Street loved to hear the robin going tweet, tweet, tweet.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

But Now, It's Up to Us, Babe

One more note on Elton John: Has any major pop-music figure done more projects with other stars throughout his career? We talked about his work with John Lennon, but it's been basically a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer a year for ol' Reg Dwight. I'm sure my list is incomplete, but I have compiled a pretty extensive list of notable Elton sidemen:

Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston (plus Toni Tennille), doing backup vocals on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," 1974

Dusty Springfield, backing vocals on "The Bitch Is Back," 1974

John Lennon, guitar on "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," 1974

Jackson Browne: Elton played piano (as Rockaday Johnny) on "Redneck Friend," 1974

Kiki Dee, co-vocalist on "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," 1976

Pete Townshend, acoustic guitar on "Ball and Chain," 1982

Stevie Wonder, harmonica on "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," 1983

Millie Jackson(!), backing vocals on "Act of War," 1985

Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight, plus Stevie again, on "That's What Friends Are For," 1985

Cliff Richard, backing vocals on "Slow Rivers," 1986

Aretha Franklin, co-vocalist on "Through the Storm," 1989

George Michael, co-vocalist on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," 1991

Sting: Elton played piano (as Nancy Treadway) on his cover of "Come Down in Time," 1991

Eric Clapton, guitar on "Runaway Train," 1992

Rick Astley (plus Kiki Dee again), backing vocals on "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," 1994

Luciano Pavarotti, "Live Like Horses," 1996

Leann Rimes, co-vocalist on "Written in the Stars," 1999

Eminem, co-vocalist on "Stan" at the 2001 Grammys

Joss Stone, co-vocalist on "Calling It Christmas," 2007

The Killers: Elton played on their 2008 single "Joseph, Better You Than Me"

The George Michael single was actually from Elton's Duets album, on which he also paired up with k.d. lang, P.M. Dawn, Little Richard, Don Henley, Kiki Dee (again), Chris Rea, Tammy Wynette, Nik Kershaw, Gladys Knight (again), RuPaul, Marcella Detroit, Paul Young, Bonnie Raitt, and Leonard Cohen (!).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Public Service Announcement

I had reason to be in the car very early this morning, Sunday morning, and of course I was listening to the radio. As the clock turned over to 6:00 a.m., every station on the dial seemed to switch over to either public affairs programming or infomercials. I have nine FM music stations on my presets and two AM music stations, and the only music I could find on any of them was England Dan and John Ford Coley's "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight."

Now I ask you, how is that serving the public?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Long-Dead Threads

We'd like to welcome a new reader to OPC, one who goes by the name of Alex and has been posting some choice comments in threads that are so dead Vincent Price is doing the voiceover for them. To this item on Warren Zevon, Alex contributed the following personal reminiscence:

Some friends of mine were apartment managers at the building where Warren lived. They used to run into him sometimes in the halls and he was always extremely friendly (and I think brought them cookies one Christmas).

After they told me this, I checked the directory outside the front door the next time I visited (it's one of those buildings where the buzzer to the front door is keyed to people's phone lines) and sure enough the last name listed was "Zevon." I almost called to say how much I admired his music, then decided he deserved his privacy, peace, and quiet.

I'm still not sure it was the right decision...

Then there's this one, as I was wondering whatever happened to Mal Evans:

Mal also managed Joey Molland's short-lived post-Badfinger band Natural Gas (whose only album was produced by Felix Pappalardi, who was shot and killed by his wife in 1983). Talk about a confluence of the doomed!

Of course we love the Beatles and Badfinger around here, so that kind of thing is much appreciated. Felix Pappalardi was the bassist for Mountain and the producer for Cream and was a totally different person from Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals, as I often have to remind myself. Pappalardi's wife, Gail Collins, is a totally different person from the Gail Collins who runs the New York Times editorial page, and co-wrote "Strange Brew" for Cream. She shot Felix in the neck at their Upper East Side apartment on April 17th, 1983, but claimed it was an accident. She was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and ended up serving just over 18 months. For killing a guy!

Thanks, Alex!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What's Going On?

Near the beginning of "Let's Get It On," Marvin Gaye points out, "We're all sensitive people." Now, Marvin had a tendency to be a bit out there, so I wouldn't put anything past him. But I'm very curious as to why this line isn't "We're both sensitive people." Just what exactly was he proposing here?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Clive Scott, 1945-2009

Clive Scott, the singer-songwriter-keyboardist genius behind the Jigsaw hit "Sky High," has died at the age of 64. Yes, he passed away last month, so I'm very late on this, but how many blogs are even going to mention his passing at all?

Jigsaw had been kicking around the U.K. since 1966 without making any headway on the pop charts, gaining a reputation as a strong live act and backing up the likes of Arthur "Sweet Soul Music" Conley. On the recommendation of their manager, Scott and his songwriting partner in Jigsaw, Des Dyer, the band's drummer, decided to try for a poppier sound and came out with a little gem called "Who Do You Think You Are." Jigsaw's version went nowhere, but Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods made it the followup to their Number One hit "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" and took it to Number Fifteen in the summer of '74.

Despite the success of the cover, Jigsaw was promptly dropped from their label. So the boys began recording on Splash, a label started by their own manager, and almost immediately hit big with "Sky High," which went all the way to Number Three in the fall of 1975. They had one more Top Forty hit, "Love Fire" in the spring of 1976, then that was it for Jigsaw.

Clive Scott's last words were: "The guys from Pilot live on."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I Got the Blues

I have long had an aversion to white people playing the blues, and it has taken me a long time to figure out why. For one thing, the blues is far from my favorite style of music; what I most respond to is songwriting - chord changes, lyrics and melody - and blues songs tend to be fairly repetitive. Blues aficionados listen for vocal performance, which I quite like, and instrumental pyrotechnics, which ain't my cup of meat.

But you get Muddy Waters playing the blues, and that sounds pretty good. You hear the ache and desperation in both the singing and the playing, the pain of being a big music star and still having to paint the ceiling of the Chess studio. You don't get that with white people. White people aren't oppressed enough. Especially the ones who choose to sing the blues - they're too happy to sing the blues. Muddy sang the blues because he had no choice; white people sing the blues because they like to.

Sure, you get your occasional Allman Brothers, scraggly white trash from the non-Atlanta parts of Georgia, who are downtrodden enough for this music. If you shoot yourself in the foot on your eighteenth birthday to get out of going to Vietnam, then you really might know what it's like to have the blues. Or if you're as much of a mess as Janis Joplin was.

Yeah, I know, Eric Clapton playing "Crossroads," but at that velocity and volume, it's turned the corner from blues into heavy metal. What you usually get when white people play the blues is more like Jonny Lang's "Anything Is Possible," which only could have been written by a white person. When you got no job and no money and your woman done left you, very little is possible. I advise switching to power pop.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Elton and John

While I was researching yesterday's item on Elton John, I was struck by how serious his relationship with John Lennon was. Everyone knows that Elton sang backup on "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," but there was a lot more to it than that.

The two of them met during Lennon's Lost Weekend in Los Angeles, at the time when Elton was becoming the biggest pop star in the world. Elton then popped into the studio while Lennon was making Walls and Bridges in the summer of 1974, and sang harmony and played piano on "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night." Elton loved the song and told Lennon it would be a big hit. When Lennon demurred, Elton got him to promise that if and when it hit Number One, he would appear onstage to sing it with Elton as a duet.

The pair had already recorded Elton's cover of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," which would come out as a non-album single in December 1974. Initially, Elton just invited Lennon up to Colorado's Caribou Recording Studio to watch him cut the track, but Lennon was so impressed with the little ska movement in the middle that he wanted to play guitar on it. Supposedly, he had forgotten the chords - and you know what, I believe it, since it would have been a good seven years since Lennon would have played the song - and had Davey Johnstone show him what they were. In the end, the song carried a credit of "with the reggae guitars of Dr. Winston O'Boogie."

"Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" came out in early October, and went to Number One on November 14, 1974. Elton John was near the end of his tour then, so he arranged to have Lennon appear at the final night, on Thanksgiving at Madison Square Garden. Elton asked him to do "Imagine," but John didn't want to trot out old hits like he was Frank Sinatra, so they settled on "Whatever," "Lucy in the Sky," and "I Saw Her Standing There." This, by the way, would be the last time John Lennon appeared on a concert stage. Unbeknownst to John, Yoko was in the audience; as the story goes, they reconnected at a party after the show, and the Lost Weekend was duly ended.

"Lucy in the Sky" was the first Number One hit of 1975. By then, John and Yoko were back together, and on October 9, 1975, John's 35th birthday, Sean Ono Lennon was born. John asked Elton to be Sean's godfather, in recognition of the role he had played in reuniting him with Yoko. However, John later admitted that since Elton was gay and would not likely produce any natural heirs, he figured it wouldn't hurt to have Sean in position to inherit the "Crocodile Rock" fortune. Good thinking.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Anyway, the Thing Is, What I Really Mean...

It has become kind of a truism that any music released by Elton John after 1976 wasn't worth the wax it was distributed on, as we discussed in the comments section a few weeks ago. And sure enough, Elton's last single released in 1976 was "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," while the first in 1977 was "Bite Your Lip (Get up and dance!)," complete with the wonky Euro-capitalization on the parenthetical, according to Whitburn.

So what happened at the end of the Bicentennial Year? Let's take a look at some possibilities:

* For one thing, Elton turned thirty on March 25, 1977, exactly 23 years to the date before the birth of unofficial OPC adjunct Mark Nawrocki. Lots of rock & roll stars lose a bit of their mojo around this time. Dion never had another hit after he turned thirty.

* After Blue Moves came out in October 1976, Elton didn't release another album until A Single Man a full two years later. ("Bite Your Lip" was Blue Moves' second single.) At a concert shortly after Blue Moves came out, Elton said from the stage, "That's it, this is the last one." In November 1977, he formally announced his retirement. (It didn't take.)

* Bernie Taupin left Elton's side after Blue Moves, and did not return until the duo worked together on some songs for 1980's The Fox. Bernie would go on to write the lyrics for the Starship's "We Built This City," about which the less said the better.

* Disco reared its ugly head starting in 1976, and by the time Elton made his return in 1978, the Bee Gees had taken over the charts. Elton's dalliances with disco, from the single "Ego" to his work with Thom Bell, were rather unfortunate.

So if you look at everything that was going on, it would be remarkable if Elton John were able to carry on with as much proficiency after 1976 as he had before then. He still had a hefty thirty-nine post-'76 Top Forty hits, which is more than you've had.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Only a Motion Away

Graceland seemed like something totally new for Paul Simon when it came out in 1986, but if you listen to that opening itchy guitar figure on 1972's "Mother and Child Reunion," it sounds an awful lot like it could be on that later album. It's not totally dissimilar to the guitar part for "Gumboots."

"Mother and Child Reunion" was recorded in Jamaica with a bunch of reggae musicians, and the guitarist was a guy named Hucks Brown, who had been in Toots and the Maytals. It's probably not much of a stretch from Jamaican reggae to South African mbaqanga.

Hey, that's not really enough information to sustain a full item, is it? How about this: Do you know where the titled "Mother and Child Reunion" came from? It was an entry on a menu at a Chinese restaurant that Simon was eating at in lower Manhattan - specifically, Say Eng Look in Chinatown. "Mother and child reunion" refers to a dish with chicken and eggs - which is kind of sad and gross, if you ask me.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

This Post Has No Title

I figure the practice of giving songs titles that have nothing to do with the lyrics is a way of keeping some street cred, of distancing yourself from easy pop worship by casual fans. If you want to know what's going on with a band that gives its songs obscure names, you can't just hear them on the radio; you've got to buy the album , or at least download some of it. The true fans will be into the band enough to recognize that the song's real title is "Sliver," and they get to laugh at the Johnny-come-latelies who start screaming for "Grandma Take Me Home."

I think Led Zeppelin was the first well-known, major band to give songs those kinds of titles regularly: "Black Dog," "D'yer Mak'er," etc. I have been reliably assured that "Kashmir" doesn't quite fall into this category.

At the same time, though, the mighty Zep would haul out the occasional "Stairway to Heaven" or "Whole Lotta Love," where it would be pretty unmistakable which song you were talking about. Near as I can tell, it was New Order that took this to the next level: Hardly any New Order song titles reflect what's in the lyrics. "Blue Monday"? "True Faith"? What has that got to do with anything? I am a New Order fan, and I have to occasionally remind myself which song is which, although not with the titanic "Bizarre Love Triangle."

And it's pretty ridiculous. Why can't they just give us a name that we can quickly associate with the song? Some really good bands do a lot of this kind of thing these days, like Radiohead or the Shins, and it's time for them to cut it out. You know what the Beatles called that song that went "Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be"? Coldplay would have called it "Armored Arrow," but the Beatles called it "Let It Be."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Guess Who Quit

Back in 1965, a band out of Winnipeg called Chad Allan and the Expressions recorded a cover of "Shakin' All Over" that went to Number Twenty-Two on the U.S. charts. That same band went on to record six Top Ten hits, and became the first Canadian band to have a Number One hit in the United States.

If you've never heard of Chad Allan and the Expressions, there's a reason for that. The Expressions cut their cover of the old Johnny Kidd and the Pirates song (later torched by the Who on Live at Leeds) early in '65, and as a publicity stunt, their label, Scepter, put out the single with a label that just read "Guess Who?" When it came time to release an album, with "Shakin All Over" as the title track, the record was by then credited to "Guess Who? Chad Allan and the Expressions."

As you can imagine, folks found this mighty confusing, and not just Canadians. Pretty much everyone started calling the band Guess Who?, rather than Chad Allan and the Expressions. For the band's second album, Hey Ho (What You Do to Me), the crediting remained the same, but by the time of the third one, It's Time, they were down to merely Guess Who?

And guess who it wasn't: Chad Allan. The band had brought in Burton Cummings after that second album, and Allan, who was the band's vocalist and co-guitarist with Randy Bachman, started to develop throat problems in 1966. He also hated traveling, so he quit the band, and eventually was given the job of hosting a CBC music show called Let's Go. The house band was the Guess Who.

Randy Bachman left the Guess Who in 1970 to form a band called Brave Belt, and when he couldn't find anyone to play with him, Chad Allan volunteered. But Allan quit, again, after the first Brave Belt album, and after the second Brave Belt album, Brave Belt II, the band changed its name to Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

Oh, and the Guess Who finally lost that question mark by the their 1968 album Wheatfield Soul. Since they didn't return to the American charts until 1969's "These Eyes," Chad Allan and the Expressions and the Guess Who both had an American hit, but the Guess Who? never did.

Monday, June 1, 2009


There were a couple more notes I wanted to throw out here on all that one-hit stuff I've been doing. I want to thank everyone who suggested songs to write about, even though I didn't use most of them. I'm not sure how much of a purist to be about these things, but I decided to disallow any artist who had a second Top Forty hit, like Michael Sembello, who went to Number One with "Maniac," but also hit with something called "Automatic Man," which went to Number Thirty-Four in the fall of 1983. I really wanted to write about the Toys' "A Lover's Concerto" or Jimmy Soul's "If You Wanna Be Happy," but I had to deal with "Attack" (Number Eighteen in very early 1966) and "Twistin' Matilda" (Number Twenty-Two in the spring of 1962), respectively, even though no one has heard either of those songs in forty years.

I did find out that the S.O.S. Band, which went to Number Three in 1980 with "Take Your Time (Do It Right) Part 1," had a drummer named James Earl Jones III, although I don't think he's related to the real James Earl Jones. The Seventies disco group Silver Convention was almost a two-hit wonder: "Fly, Robin, Fly" went to Number One late in 1975, then "Get Up and Boogie" stalled out at Number Two (for three weeks!) in the late spring of 1976. Those were Silver Convention's only hits; I'm pretty sure no act has had two Number One hits and no other Top Forty action.

Incidentally, Whitburn lists "Fly, Robin, Fly" as an instrumental, but "Get Up and Boogie" as a non-instrumental. A few weeks ago, Gavin pointed out that a lot of instrumentals actually have their titles as their only lyric, like "Tequila" or "The Hustle" (yes, there's a "do" in there as well). It would seem a reasonable cutoff to me to call something an instrumental if it had virtually no words beyond its title, but of course "Fly, Robin, Fly" also says "up, up to the sky" in there. Surely, a topic for further investigation.

I also found a terrifying piece of video when researching "Lovin' You." It's a talk show featuring Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Pryor and Minnie Riperton, which really would be enough in and of itself, but you also get to see Minnie get attacked by a lion. And Richard imitates Minnie giving birth, but seriously, guys, this video shows MINNIE RIPERTON BEING ATTACKED BY A LION.