Thursday, May 31, 2012

Just You Wait: Ashton, Gardner and Dyke: "The Resurrection Shuffle"

As the 60s turned into the 70s, there were a lot of musicians who had been working as sidemen that decided to take their own shot at fame, however transient that would be.  Some were more successful than others; at this point there’s more than a few who are gearing up, waiting in the wings, or are cult figures, yet to break out into the mainstream.  In a way the 70s are open country as the dominant band of the previous decade – The Beatles – have gone their separate ways, have broken into their constituent parts.  Something new is forming, but has yet to really jell, and in the free-for-all atmosphere one-hit wonders are bound to happen, even more than usual. 

Ashton, Gardner and Dyke were all experienced musicians – two of them worked with George Harrison on Wonderwall – and after a flop first single, they came up with this song (an NME #2), which itself sounds like a grab bag of hip signifiers of the time, V-signs, blown kisses and backbones slipping.  I’m not sure what ‘heavy leather’ has to do with anything, but this is a warm-up, in its way, for what is to come.  It’s loud, fast, defiant, masculine – horns and piano lead the way here.  It’s a rave-up reveille for the new troops of bands to come, all hey-now jiving and dancing.  (Tom Jones covered it, of course.) 

After the psychedelic haze of the late 60s, rock is going back to its early 50s basics – get up, have fun, the lyrics say, and come alive again*.  So it is a pity that these guys never got another hit, though they kept going for another year or so.  Something this upbeat and salutary can’t really be repeated, though, but I can’t help but think of this as a kind of blueprint for a lot of what is about to come.  There comes a point, I should add, when rock dramatically dies and then comes back to life; and this is a prediction of that, more than anything else.  It’s a portent, and in this time when no one really knows what is happening, a good one.

Next up:  did someone say pre-rock? 

*I doubt if resurrection is being used here in its Christian sense.  Though rock music was starting to get hip to Christianity (or is that the other way around?) at this time, a far cry from Jerry Lee Lewis having to be talked into doing “Great Balls of Fire.” 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Built For Two: The Mixtures: "The Pushbike Song"

And now we head, dear readers, back down to Australia.  We haven’t been here a while, and something interesting happened when we were gone.  Due to disputes about airplay and royalties, there was a huge chunk of 1970 where Australian radio refused to play music by British or Australian acts on major labels.  As a result, big songs from the UK were covered by smaller Australian bands and they did very well indeed on the charts, including The Mixtures’ cover of “In The Summertime.”  (American music kept right on being played as usual, in case you were wondering.)  There were some who defied the ban, as per usual, but for the most part stations across Australia suddenly were awash with music from independent, smaller labels who ordinarily wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much airplay (as I understand it) as they usually would.  The Mixtures got to #1 with their cover, and promptly wrote this song that is, unmistakably, inspired by it, as least in its basic rhythms and oooh-ah-ah-ooh-ah-ooh sensibility. 
There is something very home grown about this song nevertheless; the narrator isn’t in a car but on a bike, pursuing a woman who is attractive to him; at some point he is on a bicycle built for two and at the end, there they are together, the woman presumably won over by his constant cries of “you look so pretty” and manly grunting and panting as he tries to keep up with her.  This may be a song of the 70s but it may as well be from a century ago (there’s a Mixture riding a penny farthing in the video, Prisoner fans) – a time when winsome girls wearing long skirts* presumably didn’t mind being amiably pursued by a possible swains.
There is another thing here that needs to be mentioned, however; that is a bit bigger than boy-meets-girl-chases-girl-gets girl.  This song is clearly inspired, shall we say, by Mungo Jerry's hit; not so much that it would cause a lawsuit, but enough that even blunter ears could have guessed what The Mixtures' hit was on big-label-deprived Australian radio.  The song that kept it at #2 for weeks was also naggingly familiar, to anyone who remembered The Chiffons' "He's So Fine" from 1963.  The Mixtures avoided a lawsuit, but Harrison didn't, and I am sure there are those who felt it was wrong - wrong! - for an ex-Beatle to have to go through a court case over  something he wrote.  Aren't there only so many chords, chord progressions, etc.?  Well, the songwriters and publishers didn't think so, and the pop audience of the time may not have noticed or cared, really.  The Mixtures openly covered Mungo Jerry and were thence entitled to make hay while the sun shone on them; Harrison's case was divided between Beatles loyalists, those who were too young to remember the song in the first place, and those who did remember the song who found his appropriation of it more than a little icky.  Pop was beginning to, as they say, eat itself, as the division (which I will write about in a future entry) between pop and rock was growing.      
But even behind this there’s another parallel issue, and this is the anonymity of groups like The Mixtures; so many groups that were faceless to the UK public were appearing now that cover albums – ones that were done in mere days, consisting of songs**  that were hits in the past three weeks or so – began to appear.  Studio musicians and singers would listen to the songs, try to get them down, and then record them, and these albums were sold cheaply, to a public more than willing to buy them.  (Songs by name acts also appeared, of course, the gap between original and copy being that much more crevasse-like.)  This was a kind of ultimate degradation in a way, or elevation, depending on how you look at it.  Is the Song what counts, or the Musicians? 
I will only note, for now, that this is the kind of song now only played on the radio during chart shows; like so much early 70s music it was disposable then, and almost forgotten about now.  Once the Australian radio dispute was settled, and radio went back to normal, hardly any Australian bands got to #1, and The Mixtures themselves had one more big hit, “Henry Ford,” continuing on through the 70s, well-known at home but one-hit wonders abroad.  Is pop in crisis?  No one would have heard of The Mixtures outside of Australia if it wasn’t. 
Next up:  yet another one-hit wonder!     
*Is it just me, or did they pick someone who looks like Mary Hopkin?   
**I will be writing about some of the songs featured on this album.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Energy Burst: T.Rex: "Ride A White Swan"

After the earnestness of 1970, we get a break at long last; a break that is like a bridge between the hippy 60s and the modern 70s.  It takes ambition to do this, but in Marc Bolan’s case I am guessing it was frustration as much as anything; always a confident musician, his 60s duo Tyrannosaurus Rex were well-respected and well-known, but never chart-toppers, more of a cult, and perhaps Bolan felt slighted by this; so he decided to up the ante.  He was going to keep the mystical lyrics, sure, but now the acoustic duo was going to go electric, and the sometimes obscure and intricate music would be groovier, hand-clappier, and proudly become rock ‘n’ roll in the best sense of the term.

It is as if Chuck Berry and Oscar Wilde were somehow melded into one and had just attended a Wicca ceremony; there is a roughness to the elegance, a polished grit. 
This song begins the glam era, one that reclaimed the right to rock and wear shiny clothing and have FUN; and this song celebrates Beltane, the spring, new life bursting out everywhere after a long winter.  It doesn’t hurt that Bolan looks a bit like a Druid himself, wide-eyed and wise, the sort of guy who could say (from an interview in Voxpop) that in the mid-60s he “boogied around for about a year doing nothing” and that if this song wasn’t a hit he was going to leave music and be a writer.  This song was his last shot at music at the time, as “the business as such was at a very low ebb at that point, there was really nothing going down.”  He expected to get flak for it, but obviously it was a success, and he quickly had to get a band together and before he was perhaps ready for it, T. Rex was a rock band, no longer a hippy duo. 
Sometimes things get to such a low point that something new has to be done, as the old is indeed the old and must make way for the new; and the lyrics – which Bolan is proud of – herald this new time, a time for flights of fancy and wisdom, all to a beat and a rocking guitar.  Bolan’s voice is  pretty – not an adjective I use lightly – with a vibrato that is somewhat like a bird, high and nearly androgynous, the vocal equivalent of a cool breeze.  Even if you don’t have any interest in Wicca and have never danced around a maypole this is a seductive and inspiring song, and amongst the angst and anger it was like the return of flower power, a big hint that elegance can rock too.  I do not know if it was coincidence or not that glam anticipated a period when people would need something groovy to boogie to – as a way of escape – but this is as noble and serene as a swan itself, admirable at any time, a mixing up of so many things that it was open to all to love.  Bolan had rolled the dice and finally won; this blog will get back to him once he is a star at last, and many musicians of the time as well as future ones will be inspired by him.  But for now:  “and I wanted to get on there and make some changes in a way that wouldn’t hurt anyone.”  Change is the word; we shall see, dear readers, how much change there is in ’71.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

(Don't) Remember Me: McGuinness Flint: “When I’m Dead And Gone”

And so this year ends, with strange logic, in a contemplation of life beyond that of the singer. Symbolically it couldn’t be more clear – something is ending – what I am not sure – which can only mean that something else is around the corner.  That there’s a prominent mandolin here is something of a clue, I guess; this is more of the ‘back to the basics’ movement of cheery folk, the folk who want to live easy and die without giving anyone grief.  This is a song for those who want their funerals to be a celebration, full of good memories and appreciation rather than sorrow and mourning.  The death here is one that the singer knows is coming, perhaps, or maybe he’s already resigned to its inevitability; and he has made peace with it, in a common sense way.  (It is sort of the English folk relation to “And When I Die” by Laura Nyro, only far more laid back.) 
There is a kind of odd selfishness here though – no epitaph?  Really?  Nothing with your name on it, at least?  The singer is modest here, sure, but maybe also a little short-sighted.  What he wants – no gloom, no doom – is almost by definition out of his control.  The ease in his mind – that his woman and daughter will be safe – could only be the ease of someone who maybe doesn’t spend much time with them anyway, or else, wouldn’t they miss him?  This seems to be a song sung by someone who is eager to be unattached to anyone or anything, even any marker saying they existed in the first place.  This kind of selfish humility – the kind that doesn’t want to be remembered, even as they are telling others not to remember them – comes with a kind of pastoral bumpkin sing-a-long that sounds resigned, resolved, maybe even happy. 
That this song may be about Robert Johnson makes some sense; it is a young man’s song, one where there are no strong attachments, to places, people, things; he doesn’t want a marker because he is everywhere and nowhere once he’s dead.  And maybe he’s acted towards others so irresponsibly that they wouldn’t miss him once he was gone after all;  he sold his soul to play like that, what did you expect, a long and happy life?  But I feel this is sentimentalizing Johnson’s life, to claim he was so blithe about how things would be after his death.  His records don’t sound like that; they are full of life and its struggles, to say the least, and profound joys and sorrows.  He doesn’t sound, to me, like a man who wants no epitaph, no remembrance; he wants his own griefs to end, is more like it*.
That McGuinness Flint was a supergroup of sorts is obvious from their name**; that they struggled after this hit also seems with hindsight obvious, with Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle (who wrote this) eventually breaking away in 1971 to have their own success as a duo.  Someone else must have picked up on the mandolin though, but soon enough a group that used to record hippie folk will appear here, because what the charts need is elegant boogie.  And so begins 1971…
*That this should be a hit after “Voodoo Chile” went to #1 shows the difference between the faux-modesty here and the exultant claims of Hendrix, who had every right to sing what he did; and lest we forget, Eric Clapton is in the US with Derek and the Dominoes at this time, exorcising his own demons.  Their music is alive in a way that this song isn’t.
**Tom McGuinness was ex-Manfred Mann; Hughie Flint was one of the many musicians who’d been in John Mayall’s group.  They continued on until 1975, making good music but to less and less interest from the public.

Sweet Escape: Neil Diamond: "Cracklin' Rosie"

You might be wondering by now where on earth regular love songs have gotten to in the charts; are they all hiding away?  It has been a strange year, with lovers, when they show up at all, pleading rather than praising, and even “Can’t Help Falling In Love” comes across, the way Williams does it, as a joyous complaint.  (The #1s don’t concern themselves much with love either, besides “Love Grows [Where My Rosemary Goes]” on the one hand and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on the other*.)  So here we are, alone, looking for fun.  Hmm, what to do?

Console yourself the way Neil Diamond does, with some nice wine, that’s what.  By far the most sparkling (ahem) song in a while, Diamond sings and writes a song full of baba-ba-ba-ba-bas and optimism, the strength and sweetness of the song balanced by his lyrics, which come from…Canada!  Yes, or rather YES as Diamond would sing it.  He visited a tribe there – which one I don’t know, as there are many** – and found that there were more men than women there, so the men without women would sit around and drink Cracklin’ Rosie – have ‘her’ as their date, so to speak.  If there is any pathos in this, it comes early, the "twilight train" part is gruffly sung, his temporary sorrow leading him to a state of near-rebellious joy where the wine is appreciated and celebrated, the “store-bought woman” makes him sing and perhaps brings him to a near-euphoric state – “Play it now!” he sings, as if he is becoming the music itself as he is drinking.  He may not have a woman, but the wine is bringing him inspiration, is his muse; his consolation for being alone.  Diamond goes quiet and sings to the bottle itself, “you got the way to make me happy” as if it was a woman; no wonder it would be easy to mishear this song and think it was actually about one.  Together they are going to “set the world right” and make problems go away; and after this rough year, who can blame him for wanting to escape with some wine? 

To say this is a memorable song is an understatement; Diamond needed a hit and wrote something with so many hooks that it could not help but be a hit everywhere, including being his first real hit – as an artist and performer – in the UK***.  The warmth and realism in the song – the sudden stops and starts in it, the exhortations, are like those of someone who has already been drinking, someone who has been in this position before and doesn’t actually mind it that much.  The guitar hums and plays, the night is long but he is most definitely not alone.  This is a song of relief, joy, community even; things may not be perfect, but upon reflection – and a glass or two – they really aren’t all that bad either.  This is the most wholehearted love song this year, one of satisfaction and need, a kind of reassurance that a lot of people, in tribes or elsewhere, could relate to:  wine as a source of joy and comfort, a kind of companion.  This is, again, an ancient kind of joy, and as long as the drinking doesn’t get out of hand, an honourable one. 

Next up:  the year expires, so to speak.

*Yes, I know Elvis’ “The Wonder of You” should count, but this is him singing to his audience about how much they love him; and Dana’s “All Kinds of Everything” is a Eurovision rehash of “My Favorite Things.” (One I like, by the way.) "In The Summertime" is about looking for a woman, which isn't quite the same thing.   

**My guess is that they are in Ontario, perhaps Six Nations; if they are making the wine themselves then they have to live somewhere grapes can grow, as they do in southern Ontario.  (To this day when I hear the phrase “six nations” I don’t think of rugby, I think of Canada.)
***From Tap Root Manuscript, wherein Diamond does that world music thing before it became hip; the second side is a suite of Africa-inspired songs.  (I should add this is an NME #2.) 

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Real Rebels: Don Fardon: "Indian Reservation"

If you haven’t noticed already, this year is a rather uneasy one, one where the accumulated angst of a whole decade seems to be seeping out, one song at a time.  Liberation was the cry of the 70s, as the idealism of the 60s hardened from flowers and psychedelics – an altering of perception in order to conceive of that better world – to the less glamourous but necessary hard looks at what has been happening and how it can be changed in a practical way.  The personal was becoming the political, whether ordinary folks liked it or not. 

This is laudable, though it could (and as we know, did) lapse into narcissism and solipsistic thinking; the surest way to actually appreciate what you have is to think of others, particularly their history.  And here is a song of what happened to the Cherokee Nation, a century and a half before.  Migration was common back then, especially as (as taught to me in almost all my history classes) Europe was getting crowded and there was a whole new continent out there, sans monarchy and religious repression, waiting to be populated by anyone who showed up.  And as this had been happening since the 1770s or so, by the 1830s things were already starting to get crowded in the Atlantic states, and farmers were itching for new pastures, literally and figuratively.  The US government (who had been, shall we say, "kindly instructing" the Cherokee in how they should live – i.e. in the American way – for decades) basically kicked the Cherokee out of their homelands and drove them out, by force if necessary.  Manifest Destiny was the claim of the US; this act was one of many justified by it.  The fact that the Cherokee had been there for a very long time didn’t matter; from the American perspective they were in charge now, and that was pretty much that.  The Cherokee Nation continued the best it could, and even wanted their own state; a perfectly reasonable request, all things considered, that got nowhere in Washington D.C.  By the 1900s the Cherokee were segregated against just like African Americans, and by the time Don Fardon recorded this in 1968, they too benefitted from the civil rights movement and various laws passed just years before. 
Just what a freakbeat singer was doing recording this is less clear; it had been written by John D. Loudermilk in the 50s and recorded by Marvin Rainwater – himself ¼ Cherokee – but that recording (“The Pale Faced Indian”) in 1959 didn’t really get anywhere.  Perhaps he had heard about the Red Power movement; maybe he just liked the song.  Why it only got into the charts at this point is also a mystery, but it fits the general sense of unrest and injustice of 1970 better, I think, than the rather lachrymose charts of ’68, in general.  Fardon makes this a tough record; there is a freakbeat stompiness and menace in the horns at the start; the intensity that made his old band The Sorrows just a bit too much for the public is certainly here, his voice quiet, the song building up and building up to “War” like levels of disquiet.  A whole way of life is wiped out before the song ends, but the people stand strong, ready to return.  A guitar stings and “will return…will return….” comes back with horns loud and a lone drum skiddering off, as if to say, we will indeed return, and for that matter, we’re still here, dammit.  If rock 'n' roll is all about rebelling against The Man, well, there's nothing like a song where The Man's actions against not just one person but a whole people is catalogued.  That Fardon had no Native American roots to speak of may make some uneasy, but then neither (that I know of) did the song's writer, and rock always roots for the underdog, in any case.  Fardon sounds sincere, angry even; and the song was a big enough hit for Paul Revere and The Raiders to cover it and take it to #1 in the US in '71 (lead singer Mark Lindsay was part Cherokee himself; thus his interest). 

Historical perspective is a way of comprehending where we are now by looking at what happened then; the US was about to go through a turbulent decade wherein wrongs would be recognized and righted - through politics, through cultural shifts, through art itself. You cannot change things for the better if you don't know how they got messed up in the first place; that a UK singer brought this song back to the public's acclaim (it was an NME #2) and thence via a similar version to the US's attention is a good thing, almost a public declaration. Rock has grown up a lot here, able to make this a hit and become that public art that helps, if only in a small way, to give some perspective to what is really worth rebelling about, what is really at stake in life.

Next up:  who needs a loaf of bread or a thou?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Flowers Are Better Than Bullets": Edwin Starr: "War"

“The United States recognizes ‘membership in good standing’ in the Mennonite church as a justifiable reason to bestow exemption from military service.  Being a Mennonite is like having a note from your mom.  This exemption is due to the fact that throughout their history Mennonites have defined themselves by their refusal to fight.  Pick a war, any war, and the Mennonites have opposed it.  In Mennonite doctrine, there is no such thing as a Just War.  Moreover, we believe that violence leads only to more violence…Mennonites traditionally called themselves Die Stillen im Lande (the Quiet in the Nations) – meaning that civil resistance could be achieved through the twin activities of thoughtful active nonparticipation and farming.  Both of these activities involve practical action.  If it’s worth believing, it’s worth doing.”      Rhoda Janzen, Mennonite In a Little Black Dress

War is such a huge topic that I feel it only possible to write about my father; to use his experience, or what I know of it in any case, as one tiny facet of war.
My father was supposed to be – in the Mennonite tradition of family patterns, I suppose – a preacher.  Yes, Mennonites have preachers – those who lead exemplary lives and are of course highly religious.  But my father, since he was a kid, had the drawing bug; by the late 40s he had done the illustrations for his high school yearbook, so good and obsessed was he by taking pen, pencil and paper and observing and then drawing.  By 1948 he had decided that as good as this was, he wanted to get to know something else, something a bit more modern – the motion picture camera.  Such things were much harder to come by in Reedley, Ca., and so he joined the army, just so he could, eventually, take classes in how to use one and then go and film something.
As you can see, my father was a rather single-minded man whose ambitions lay far away from being a preacher; the visual arts were his thing, whether drawing, painting or the movies.  Staying in a small town was not something of interest to him, when the big wide world was out there.  Voluntarily joining the army was also, as you can see, something of a rebellious move; he even went to church in his uniform once, a gesture that may well have gotten him kicked out of church altogether, for all I know.  (He was also a budding agnostic, I should note.) 
And so he joined, and got sent to Fort Benning in Georgia, where on Sundays he would go to a local church there to see a very different service from the ones he knew, ones he would refer to when playing me his James Brown album – what he heard in Brown’s music in the 60s was what he’d heard there in ’49.  He never talked much about his pre-war days, though he did say he lost weight, as back home on the farm they ate four times a day (the last a meal near midnight, in case you were wondering), in the army, three.  And then the Korean War began, and my father was sent over as part of the motion picture camera division, responsible for filming action in all weathers, for newsreels back home. 
He never talked very much about his war days, either; but I could sense that they were maybe something that had changed him, how much I don’t know as he met my mom years afterward and they had me years after that.  He had lost a good friend by a random sniper shot in an alley somewhere; he had made it across the alley, but Pete didn’t .  My father had made a tough bargain for himself – do all this and learn about cameras, angles, lenses, etc. – ‘this’ being stuck in the endless cold of Korea, day in and day out…but he came out of it in one piece, if not emotionally and otherwise scarred in some ways.  I have no idea if my father’s grumpiness, depressive streaks or moody moments came out of being brought up in the Great Depression or having seen war; he had a mean teasing streak and yet was oddly non-preachy with me.  He was rarely angry with me, but he could be bossy (Mennonite fathers definitely rule the roost) and silly by turns. 
By the time my mom was pregnant with me, he was a skilled animator of many years, and was at this time (he’d worked at Disney amongst other places after returning from Korea) working for the military.  The Vietnam war was looking to be more and more unwinnable, which didn’t stop the military one bit in piling on money and effort to get more and more technologically advanced weapons into battle.  My father grew uncomfortable with this and decided that by the time I was born he would go back to civilian work, and the short film he did just before I arrived he was very subtle in showing others the reason why.  The film is about a super-duper new plane that can swoop and dive easily; in one swoop in the film you can see two ribbons of air from either wing, one blue, one pink.  I arrived in January 1967, pink, and named by my mother after my father’s mom, Lena.  After that point, my father did not work for any military anywhere, and instead animated various Nasa activities, including the Moon Landing and the Mars explorer.  
The one thing he would tell me about war was how he thought – he knew – it had turned men into machines.  I think he even showed me some pictures he'd drawn – incredibly dense and depressing ones – of humans literally turning into machines, losing their bodies and souls in the process.  He did the military animation as it was a job; but his conscience told him that this was wrong, morally wrong.  The Mennonite anti-war stance was fashionable in some circles in the 60s, but my father was not a hippie; he had seen war – he had filmed it, after all – and knew the whole process.  As much as he had to support my mom and me, he couldn’t do it by working for the military in any way.  Vietnam was just too awful, and I can imagine his anguish at coming home to watch the news every night, and seeing the war, and then going back to work to animate a machine designed to kill quickly, every day.
My father’s taste in music was mostly for jazz, some Romantic classical and whatever else took his fancy; anything that swung was okay with him.  What he thought of this song I don’t know, though once in a fit of letting me actually play what I wanted on the stereo (usually I had to wait for him to be out of the house to play anything I wanted) I played the huge four-album Motown box set I got from the library.  Was this on it?  I don’t remember, but the only song on it he didn’t like was “Baby Love” (“Too many ‘babys’” was his verdict).  By 1970 the anti-war fervor was building to a head; four protesters had been killed at Kent State University in Ohio in May*and the Hard Hat Riot was just a few days later.  I am too young to remember any of this of course, though there is a picture of me around this time wearing overalls with a peace dove patch on the front, and mom’s key chain – which she had for years - was a metal rectangle, with the slogan “War Is Not Healthy For Children And Other Living Things” engraved on it.
This song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1969; it was first recorded by the Temptations and appears on their Psychedelic Shack album.  Motown got tons of requests to release it as a single, but the label and the group were a bit nervous about releasing something so anti-war, and thus possibly alienating fans.  (Even though most of “young America” was against the war, the Temptations were not about, I’d imagine, to do this in a supper club in Middle America.)  Whitfield wanted it to be released, but got nowhere, so he decided to re-record it with someone else; Starr, who had just joined Motown the previous year, volunteered himself for the job.  Whitfield got to do the song his way (the Temptations version is more laid-back); wailing guitars, the Undisputed Truth on backing vocals, clavinet, marching drums, the works.  None of that would have worked if Starr’s vocal wasn’t the most furious one – not nobly pained, but angry – that Motown had yet released.  Starr comes across as the righteous preacher, knowing “there’s got to be a better way” even as he sees the relentless machine of war eating humans alive – “Induction, then destruction – who wants to die?”  That Starr does this song with a mean grin on his face – a complicated one, as if to say, hell yeah I’m doing this song, just try to stop me, this is the greatest anti-war song and I’m doing it right now – makes it even clearer, in a way, just as this is a bright, tight production that points to what anyone could see on the streets – the young men, veterans, broken and damaged, or the families of those that lost loved ones, struggling to keep it together.  “Good God, y’all” snarls Starr at the whole situation, saying what the Mennonites had been saying for centuries; war is good for nothing, absolutely nothing. 
Whitfield had his way, the song went to #1 in the US – the only openly anti-war one to do so – and #2 here, where the Troubles were showing that they too weren’t going away any time soon.  Young America – and perhaps some of Middle America too – were beginning to see that this war was not going to be won, that it was indeed pointless.  Kent State was seen by some as the turning point in events, leading to the end of both the Nixon administration and Vietnam itself, though I like to think of this song's success as part of that process as well.
That Motown would have such success with this still didn't exactly pave the way for the more laid-back - if no less heartfelt - What's Going On by Marvin Gaye in '71 (that Gaye had to fight to record an album based on the point of view of a Vietnam vet shows how Motown would grudgingly release "Ball of Confusion" and "War" itself just to show it knew what time it was, but strangely balked with Gaye's far less openly strident work).  If I associate the early 70s with anything it is the socially-conscious soul/r&b that, as Greil Marcus puts it, was "nervous, trusting little if anything...driven by great physical energy, determined to get across the idea of a world - downtown or uptown, it didn't matter - where nothing was as it seemed."  He names this as one of the songs that helps to start this new era, a song that plainly and frankly tells things as they are, not as some would wish them to be.  A song about the pointlessness of war must be alive, super-alive in a way, leaping from the radio to startle an unwary listener.  That my parents would have agreed with him is obvious, that the grieving students would buy this is also obvious, but that this would not just be a song of its time, forgotten by future generations, was unthinkable**.  Whitfield, Strong and Starr helped to get the anti-war message out with that fierce smile; a complex look to match a record that took the military march and effectively threw its propaganda right back in its face.  It will be a long time before I get to another song as uncompromising as this one.

In Memoriam of my father, Dietrich Peter Friesen, 1930-1988
*A future subject of mine was there at the time and knew the four killed, was perhaps even friends with one of them; but that is for a different blog. 

**Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band did this live with Edwin Starr back in the 80s, as did Frankie Goes To Hollywood.  I'm not sure if that makes Starr a friendly forebear, but he did move to the UK to record and perform, just as Desmond Dekker did. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

This Land Is Our Land: Clarence Carter: "Patches"

And now we go back to Detroit, of all places, for a song about rural Alabama.  Native Georgian General Johnson wrote (and The Chairmen of the Board recorded) this song, but it took off when a real son of Alabama, Clarence Carter, covered it. 

As the descendant of a whole line of farmers, I can feel this song in my bones, even though I’m not from the South*.  A farm is a way of life, a perilous one, and dependent on many things, primarily Mother Nature herself.  To be born on a farm is to be born attached to Earth in a way that either attracts or repels; my father was born at home, on the farm, and yearned to get away from it, but it’s hard to take the farm out of the boy, and his appreciation of food – fruit in particular, but all food – is always something I remember about him.  He left home at 18, to pursue the arts, become sophisticated, but he had the stoicism and patience of a farmer, even if he wasn’t one.

Unlike “Patches” he wasn’t the eldest in his family – he was the youngest in fact – but that heavy mantle of responsibility was there, too.  Carter sings about his life as if it was fated, as if no matter where he goes he hears his father reminding him of what he had to do, no matter what.  The father dies of sheer exhaustion before "Patches" is a teenager, and unlike “Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” his mother stays right there on the farm, doing the things a farmer’s wife always does, no more, no less.  She doesn’t remarry (since this is rural Alabama I’m guessing a lot of the eligible men have gone north, to Detroit perhaps) and the son carries the weight of his whole family – in effect his world – on his shoulders.  There is no bravado here, no defying expectations, just hard work and hoping that the crops will last until they’re ready to be harvested. 

Carter sings the song as if he’s singing it on behalf of every kid who had to stay on the farm instead of being able to leave it and getting to explore the world – to show the solid roots of family, roots that make sure he cannot leave, and as far as I can tell he is still there on the farm, taking care of it like his father told him to decades ago, and will be there until he dies.  He is attached to his family and the farm in a profound way, a scruffy kid inside, older than his years.  You don’t have to have a farming background to understand that attachment; the farm was his father’s and is now his, and he respects his father by tending the farm, which has actual crops and bugs and has to be sown and harvested, but the farm is something else too.  It is his father; it becomes his father, depending on him as much as his father did.  It is a simple and moving story, ancient in a way, a story that takes place way out in the woods in Alabama but could be anywhere, any place a father puts trust in a son and the son, despite hardships, carries out that trust.  1970 has brought many realities to the fore, but none are as basic as this one.

Next up:  hm, did I mention my father was a Mennonite?  And that we’re pacifists?

*My father was born in rural Nebraska, at the beginning of the Great Depression. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Rock and Roll: Deep Purple: "Black Night"

As the late 60s wound down, two genres of rock began to evolve; one was the HRS way of boogie, keeping rock free from any sort of pretence beyond the willingness to ‘get down’ ‘the road.’  But there were those who heard the blues and wanted to expand them or extend them in ways beyond the norm, beyond laddishness, beyond going down to the pub (even though they were pub fans themselves, of course)…

Figuring out just where heavy metal starts, what constitutes it, and what its true heart lies is difficult, but not impossible to figure out.  The phrase ‘heavy metal’ is in “Born To Be Wild” (a fairly metal sentiment, I think) and is thus Canadian*; metal itself happened when The Beatles recorded “Ticket To Ride” (or maybe it was Jimi Hendrix or Cream or any other heavy band of the period; theories and accounts vary).  However, Marshall stacks arose, volumes and eardrums were tested, and heavy metal was fully underway by 1968, when Led Zeppelin appeared, and Deep Purple began at the very same time.  It’s impossible to mix up the two bands, though, as Led Zeppelin were behemoths intent on devouring the world, while Deep Purple were more intent on bringing a paradoxical heaviness and lightness to rock, as they do here.

The purpose of metal is to describe, as best can be done (in this case with lead guitar, bass, organ, drums and lead singer) the perils and pitfalls of being an outsider, alone, forever on the move lest something worse happen.  There are lots of variants of course, but I think that aloneness counts; that perpetual sense of threat, whether natural or manmade.  Here the narrator is alone, it’s dark, he cannot see, and desperately wants to get home – not to rest under a tree or on the beach, but home, real home, wherever that is.  There is something vaguely existential hanging over all this (notice that there are no references, as I feel there would be, to women if Led Zeppelin had written this song) – and that if you mishear it, as I did, as ‘black knight’ then there is already a medieval element here, though the Purps were as modern as you like, not given to singing about fairies or may queens like Black Sabbath or Zep themselves. 

Ian Gillan sings the song straight, with perhaps a smile of sympathy here or there; Blackmore hammers out the riff he picked up from Ricky Nelson’s version of “Summertime**“; classically-trained Jon Lord, leader of the group, demonically keeps up with Roger Glover on bass and Ian Paice*** on drums.  This is already one tough unit who can pretty much outrock everybody (everyone involved had been playing in bands for years; Blackmore had worked with Joe Meek when he was fifteen).   That they do so naturally and even swing a little doesn’t detract from their crunch, but certainly helped this song do as well as it did; a lot of people must have felt themselves to be lost in darkness a long way from home at this time, longing to get there and wary of traps and dead ends.  It’s a simple, anxious and noisy song, perfect for both The Fall and Metallica to cover, unpretentious and lovable in its own way.

This was the beginning of Deep Purple’s inroads into heavy metal (and the first single they’d written themselves); Deep Purple In Rock was a hit, as were Fireball and Machine Head  – their classical and psychedelic sides were put aside for hard rock, though there is always a classical aura about them, compared to other groups.  (It’s not a great leap to assume that the other music metal heads love is classical, particularly the more heavy symphonic and operatic corners, where walls of tormented noise are pierced by the shrieks of one or several singers.) 
There is hope and determination here, a kind of grit, that is typical of the group; not so much of the ‘woe is me’ complaining that can make some metal wearisome, if not out-and-out scary or depressing****.  Deep Purple never set out to carry the world on their shoulders or confront tyrannical evil; theirs was a sleeker, more elegant version of metal that could appeal to not just self-appointed outsiders, teenagers and nerds but everybody who wanted to rock on, not mellow out, in the early 70s.  For that they tend to not get the props that they deserve; which is a shame, as out of all the early bands it’s the one I find the easiest to listen to, the most surprising and likeable.  The band’s sensibilities were not just in rock but in classical, soul and jazz, even; with this song they manage to get heard by everyone, not just albums-only-buying fans, to hook who-knows-how-many fresh ears to what they are doing, to a style of rock that will not just succeed but prevail over the decades, as they themselves did, changing line-ups but continuing, defying expectations as usual. 
Next up:  another young man lost, way out, out beyond the woods.      

*As are everyone’s favourite metal band, Anvil.
**The living here is the exact opposite of 'easy.'
***To see a drummer with glasses as normal as him is pleasing in a way; he reminds me a bit of my friend Benet, though Benet isn’t a metal fan, per se.
**** Note how ultimately groovy "Smoke On The Water" is as compared to the  Zep's completely insane "Achilles' Last Stand" and then reflect again on how non-mythological the Purps are in comparison.  Deep Purple can make something out of nothing, can make even disaster sound attractive.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

If At First: Desmond Dekker: "You Can Get It If You Really Want"

If there was anyone able to sing about the virtues of patience and hard work at this time, it was Desmond (nee Dacres) Dekker.  By this time he was one of reggae’s biggest stars, due to a combination of streetwise ‘rude boy’ anthems ("Tougher Than Tough" and “[007] Shanty Town” being the first) and more pious songs (“Honour Your Mother and Father” which started his career back in ’63).  He had to wait two years for his producer, Leslie Kong, to find the right song for him – and it was his fellow welders who encouraged him to take up singing in 1961 in the first place.  At first he was only known in Jamaica, but once the rude boy anthems started to appear, his popularity everywhere else increased (Mods, in particular, took to him faithfully and he moved to the UK correspondingly).  Before Bob Marley, there was, among others, Desmond Dekker*.

This song was written by Jimmy Cliff and produced by Leslie Kong; from what I can figure out Dekker recorded it first, and Cliff then did his own version for the soundtrack of The Harder They Come in ’72.  (It is a measure of how quickly this decade shifts that by then the song sounds na├»ve; it’s the first song on the soundtrack, when the hero has aspirations to make it in the music business.)  But for now it is a mixture of that toughness in Dekker’s voice – he knows very well how hard you have to wait, how many times you have to try (he had been rejected twice by the major producers before Kong accepted him) and how it is a relief when you succeed, the efforts to reaching that success – the energy expended – being almost more important than the success itself.  The song is mid-tempo, reasonable, rational almost; not cold rationalist though, as Dekker smiles as he sings “try, try and try” as he knows how hard things can be, how the struggle can seem endless…

By this time Dekker was living in the UK and reggae was getting into the charts more and more (Jimmy Cliff’s "Wild World" and Horace Faith’s "Black Pearl" are in the same chart as Dekker) and in half a year one of the best #1s of the 70s, "Double Barrel" by Dave and Ansil Collins will show that this is reggae’s time, a special time when – and I know I am being idealistic here – the music from one island is appreciated by another, when the appreciation of this music crosses all sorts of lines – particularly in the UK, which of course had a huge influx of immigrants from the Caribbean in the late 50s – though it crossed lines in different ways, of course**.   Dekker remained in the UK, recorded and toured with UK musicians and even though he only had one hit after this – “Sing A Little Song” in 1975 – by now he had more than done his part in bringing reggae to prominence in the UK and his sharp, compassionate singing is part of the joyful realism of this time – a new decade is here, new ideas and enterprises can start, but as always, success does not come overnight. 
This song sounds like a sturdy but young plant, determined to make it no matter what; and that determination is exactly what will be needed in the years to come.  Persecution, rejection, slow starts – these are the roots of victory, Dekker sings, and because he knows this, he extends a metaphorical hand to the listener to encourage, to help, to cheer up.  Reggae has well and truly broken through, and is only going to get bigger as the decade continues, and in effect this is reggae’s own anthem to itself, put on record.

Up next:  metal with a sense of humor and history.
*”Desmond has a barrow in the marketplace” from “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a reference to him,  and if The Beatles knew about him then, everyone else caught up with him in ’69 for the epochal single “The Israelites.”
**”In Jamaica, where reggae originated, it served as the soundtrack to a tense political climate.  In England, reggae was a profound inspiration to punk rockers.  Here in North America, inspired by innovators like Bobby Bloom (“Montego Bay”) and the Guess Who (“Follow Your Daughter Home,” 1973), reggae was a kindred spirit to Fleetwood Mac and Pablo Cruise – perfect beach-volleyball music.” (I Wanna Be Sedated, Phil Dellio & Scott Woods.) (Note:  “Montego Bay” was also in the top ten at this time in the UK.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

You Can't Hurry Love: The Chairmen of the Board: "Give Me Just A Little More Time"

“Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the center of their existence, hence if each one of them experiences himself from the center of his existence.  Only in this “central experience” is human reality, only here is aliveness, only here is the basis for love.  Love, experienced thus, is a constant challenge; it is not a resting place, but a moving, growing, working together…” Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

And now we leave Manchester for Detroit, and what could be called the continuation of a Motown powerhouse under other means.  Holland-Dozier-Holland were one of the main songwriting Motown had in the 60s but left the label in 1968 to start their own, Invictus/Hot Wax* which was a success, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of Berry Gordy. 

This was The Chairmen of the Board’s first hit and their firstsingle to boot; lead singer General Johnson had been recruited by H-D-H, and Johnson brought the band together (though in fact the band playing on this isn’t them but the 1970 version of the Funk Brothers, just to add to the confusion).  There is an awful lot of subversive and maybe just flat-out competitive streaks in the early 70s, and while Gordy had the Jackson 5 as well as many other long-time Motown acts to draw on, Invictus** did very well with both Chairmen of the Board and Freda Payne, who stopped them from getting to #1 on the NME chart. 

The balance is crucial – on the one hand there’s the upbeat family dynamics of the Jackson 5, and here there is a disarmingly grown-up view that things don’t happen quickly, they need to be nurtured and patiently dealt with.  He wants her, she seems to be disinterested in anything beyond ‘love at first sight’ and has already cooled on him, but here he is trying to convince her – to what end we never find out – that they owe it to themselves to try harder, to take love more seriously, to respect love as one would a mountain.  Is love hard?  The Chairmen say hell yes, love is hard, but anything as important and sweet as love is worth the effort.  As a sentiment it flies in the face of the whole lax ‘love the one you’re with’ hippie vibes of the time and the whole idea of love being something one ‘falls into’ as opposed to ‘works at’ (Erich Fromm would have approved of this song).  Johnson’s agonized vocals – he yelps and bbrrrrrrruppss*** and pleads in such a way that the object of his affection is either going to come back to him or run away; his voice pierces the record and the time he wants is ours as we are listening, even as we feel sorry for him for being in love with someone who doesn’t have the maturity (she is younger than him; it could be that he has sadly fallen in love with someone who isn’t ready for commitment) to recognize his words as the truth.  Love is as easy as ABC?  Hmm, don’t think so.

This rejection of summer of love idealism and transience and insistence on the solid and energetic path of love must have struck a chord with a generation who themselves were ready for commitment, who had had enough of superficial relationships, those who had been burnt once or twice and were now ready to slow down and give love respect, and in turn give themselves respect as well.  Besides the deep joy of love is the knowledge that is entails constant work; any relationship worth preserving has to go through the growing pains that this song describes, or demands, and it’s as true now as it was in 1970. 
As for Holland-Dozier-Holland, they kept right on working with not just their own label's artists but with Motown artists as well; that's how deep their love was, and how even with lawsuits and psedonyms, their attachment to Motown was unshakeable.
Next up:  a trip to the movies, for some more joyful realism. 
*Apparently Motown wasn’t paying them their due royalties; Motown countersued and this dragged on for years, meaning that H-D-H had to work under the name “Edythe Wayne.” Ron Dunbar helped to write it, so “Wayne/Dunbar” is credited on the single.   
**Presumably named after the W.E. Henley poem…or maybe not.
***Let me note here that Kevin Rowland is now seventeen; he’s the only singer besides Johnson I’ve heard to ever make this noise.