Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Heartbreak Hotel

For well over two decades I'd been convinced Mötley Crüe's cover of "Jailhouse Rock" would never be surpassed for Worst Elvis Cover Ever. Actually, much as I hated it, I was impressed by it, in a way: before hearing it, I'd thought it was, like "Louie Louie," that rare song so impossibly strong it'd be impossible to screw up. The Crüe done proved me wrong.

And then I heard this...thing. I don't know how I missed it at the time, but I'm surely glad I did. When the very best part of the entire monstrosity is the sight of Arsenio Hall raising an arm in triumph, you know it's what professional musicians refer to as "not good."


Now compare and contrast with this cover. Surely John Cale is nowhere near the sheer vocalist Axl Rose is. Both covers feature outstanding guitarists—Mike Campbell for the Petty/Rose performance, Andy Summer for Cale's. And frankly it's not like Cale's version is short on its ridiculous elements: either the trucker hat or the bowtie would be potentially embarrassing but together they should be beyond mortifying. Add in Cale's faceplant and it could easily have been a hot mess. Instead, it's riveting, disturbing and ramps up the darkness that was always obviously present—a major component, in fact—in Presley's version. It's exactly what a cover should be in the same way the Rose fiasco isn't.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Nowhere, Massachusetts

The answer to the age-old question: what would it sound like if Kathleen Edwards kicked Colin Meloy out of the Decemberists and they then decided to write a Fleetwood Macian song in a slightly bluegrass vein?


And it was good.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Ohio

I'm not a huge Ben Harper fan. I've nothing against him, either, I just haven't heard a whole lot of his stuff and what I have heard has been okay but hasn't really grabbed me.

But this. This is something else. Here Harper not only taps solidly into the anguish—frankly, any musician should be able to do at the very least a half-decent job of that, given the source material (meaning both the song and the horrific history behind it)—but finds places to go with the melody and harmony that even Crosby, Still, Nash and Young missed...and that ain't no easy task.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Magic

I don’t know if The Cars get their proper due as a great American rock band.


I never hear them come up in discussions when people talk about, oh, the likes of R.E.M. and Credence Clearwater Revival and Pearl Jam and Simon and Garfunkel (if they count as a “band”) or even Van Halen and, for people with a really cute sense of humor, Aerosmith.

Because damn. For those 5-6 years where The Cars were really in their prime, they weren’t just good. They were great. Really great.

They checked every box. They were the hippest new-wave band on the block. They were all over the pop charts. They embraced all the glorious madness of MTV and videos fairly early on and used it to their great benefit. And! And they also could rock as well as anyone—listen to “Just What I Needed” and “Let’s Go.” Those aren’t just synth’d up pop productions; those are rock-n-roll to the core. From the self-titled debut album in 1978, which yeah, seems like a Greatest Hits album now (just look at this track listing!) through 1984’s Heartbeat City, The Cars had it all.

Oh, okay. Not really. They didn’t have it all. They were a great studio band but when it came to playing live…they were a great studio band. 

In the summer of 1984, when The Cars for awhile walked in that same rarified air as Michael Jackson and Prince on the pop charts and sold out arenas across the country to promote Heartbeat City, they came to Hartford. Scott and I were there. And the show didn’t last longer than an episode of Matlock.

They seemed genuinely uncomfortable playing such a large crowd (15,000 plus at the Hartford Civic Center). You could tell; they barely said a word outside of (yes, this is true) “Hartford, you’re just what I needed!” at the very end. Lead singer/leader/friendly alien Ric Ocasek said that. And that was it for the chatter. The music was…good. It was like listening The Cars’ record for 55 minutes. Only, you know, it was a concert. Where strangely enough some fans expect more.

Anyway, I digress. Not a good live band. But an awesome studio band.

Yesterday I dipped back into some of their catalogue and came across a true gem. “Magic.” From Heartbeat City.


It was a decent-sized hit, though “You Might Think” and “Hello Again” and Ben Orr’s lovely Phil Collins’ impersonation “Drive” were bigger hits off of a very big album. But none of them was better than “Magic,” which showcased the band at their truly best for maybe the last time.

“Magic” was the perfect meshing of the band’s rock-n-roll sensibilities and new wave stylings. At its heart it is all about those three thundering power chords that drive it along. Ocasek and keyboardist Greg Hawkes add some nifty and very-80s synths to it, and the glossy production values (“Whoa oh, it’s Magic!”) dominate throughout. But those three power chords, such a very basic tenet of rock-n-roll, run the show. Elliot Easton was a hell of a fun lead guitarist, and his quirky, distinct solos were what made so many of the band’s songs so damn imaginative (he has another one here at the midway point, and if it sounds dated I think it’s only because Elliot had such a unique sound that was so affixed to this era). But those chords of his (and Ocasek, I would guess. And Orr on the bass) are Rock-n-Roll 101 and they give “Magic” an indelible pop hook that is just irresistible. (That chorus, seriously, is just amazing).

And then there’s the video, which I don’t know why, but I just love.

Part vanity piece and oh-so-very of the “Life is the best and we’re never gonna die!” 1980s, it’s still a perfect match for such a sunny, infectious tune. I honestly don’t know what’s going on here—something mayhap about a pool party of beautiful people that partly morphs into a Ric Ocasek Svengali-like water-walking seminar? Is that it? Was Ric Ocasek invited here, or is this just where the spaceship dropped him? And check out the guy in the cowboy hat at the 2:22 mark! ACTING!

I don’t care. I love it. And I love watching Ric Ocasek throughout it. As he genuinely seems to resemble a creature from another galaxy whom just got left here by the mothership and is now trying to understand what is up with all these well-dressed, fawning earthlings. He reminds me of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, in that he looks both so human and so alien at the same time.

I really do love The Cars and their music. So much fun to it, so much going on behind it. If only they had a longer prime. And were better live. Alas, sometimes greatness is fleeting. And not meant to be brought outdoors.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

If

Although it sometimes seems as though it's not possible for a Pink Floyd song to fly under the radar, it's in fact very possible: few of the albums before Dark Side of the Moon are really well known even by a lot of Floyd fans, other than by name. I mean, sure, every serious PF fan is well aware of Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but without even a shred of evidence I'll state that I suspect few have heard it even once, much less ten percent as often as Wish You Were Here.

The same very much goes for their delightful soundtrack albums, Obscured by Clouds and More, and to a (much) lesser extent Atom Heart Mother and even Meddle.

Which is a shame, since they both are worthwhile albums—especially Meddle, of course—even if Atom Heart's title track is the weakest song on that LP.

I'm not sure this is the strongest, but it surely is daggum purty. (Nearly as attractive as the record sleeve.) Roger Waters' writing isn't nearly as sophisticated as it would become just a few years later, and his singing verges on being a bit precious, but the music's just lovely, and the lyrics casually introduce, long before Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here or The Wall, the insidious way insanity can creep into one's brain. Shades of Syd and crazy diamonds.



Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Tommy Ramone

So now all four of the original Ramones are dead. And well, that sucks.


Tommy Erdelyi, aka Tommy Ramone, was the original drummer for the seminal New York punk band, the one responsible for keeping that frenetic pace up as the band tore through all those early two-minute anthems like a caffeine-revved college student tearing through the pages of a textbook during an all-night cram session. He died of cancer this past weekend, and has the somewhat dubious honor of being the original band member who lived the longest, reaching his 65th birthday.

The Ramones were, of course, more than just a punk band. For a long time, particularly their heyday in the mid-to-late 1970s, sure they were all about rebellion and isolation, but it was a slightly different variety.  Because for all of their punk street cred (and really, go ahead and try and name a band that had more), it's hard to think of any American band that created more infectious tunes, despite the brevity.

In that simplicity lay the beauty of the Ramones music. It had anger, sure. And sadness and defiance and could stand as a very prominent middle-finger to the ones who made the rules. But their sound, as signature as any band that has ever existed anywhere, was also steeped in pop sensibilities, with all those simple progressions that made it just so damn listenable. Maybe their songs were all about anger, about loneliness, about numbing the mind rather coping with brutal realities. But dammit, you could dance to them! That's what made The Ramones so blessedly unique in the entire punk oeuvre.

Tommy Erdelyi was a huge part of that. He kept that legendary beat when the band was at the very peak of its powers on their first three albums (The Ramones from 1976, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia from 1977) and served as producer of those and the next one (1978's Road to Ruin). This was the the creative apex of The Ramones. Tommy was the man behind it.

At the band's most epic moments—from the “Hey ho! Let’s go!” frenzy that kicked everything off with “Blitzkrieg Bop” to the lush and gorgeous pining of “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” from the celebratory mania of “Rockaway Beach” to perhaps the band’s finest hour of “I Wanna Be Sedated”—Tommy was at the helm, either on drums, producing or doing both. He was as responsible for that blast of power, that pop sheen and that now-legendary sound as any of them.

And after he was done with The Ramones, Tommy shed that famous adopted surname, became Tommy Erdelyi again and added another pronounced notch to his rock-n-roll belt: he produced The Replacements' 1985 classic Tim, their first major-label release on Sire Records and easily one of the finest and most important post-punk records in history.  Some will claim Tim to be the Mats' best album (for me it's nearly impossible to choose between that, 1984s Let It Be and 1986's Pleased to Meet Me), but either way it gave the world "Bastards of Young" and "Here Comes a Regular" and "Swinging Party" and "Kiss Me on the Bus" and, best of all, the greatest college radio anthem ever written, "Left of the Dial."

Production values were something of a foreign concept to the Mats prior to Let it Be, and even that brilliant album still had the ragged, reckless mark of a band on the edge of total loss of control. But Tim is the one album by The Replacements that seemed to hit the production sweet spot; this was where the jagged acid of the early Twin Tone years met with the glossy, layered power of the Sire years. It's not a "producer's album," like the kind so brilliantly generated by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, but it's one where a steady hand can be felt behind the band, subtlly guiding them. It's no surprise that Tommy Erdelyi was the man at the reins for Tim. What he did for The Ramones in those glorious early days, he did for The Replacements here.

He will be missed. Very much so. Thanks for it all, Tommy.

photo: http://liveiseedeadpeoples.tumblr.com/post/9333774427/dee-dee-ramone-joey-ramone-johnny-ramone
(Here are, I think, two great examples of what Tommy brought to the table, as a drummer on the first and a producer on the second)


Monday, July 14, 2014

Standing Still

"There have been many great songs which have had really appalling lyrics, but there have been no great songs which have had appalling music."
—Peter Gabriel


Good verse, decent bridge, absolutely freakin' killer chorus. Lyrics so horrendous that if they were merely appalling it'd be a massive improvement.

But who cares. That chorus.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Sultans of Swing

This makes me perhaps unreasonably happy.


Okay, sure, maybe there are a few places where his fingering isn't quite as clean as Mark Knopfler's—but on the other hand, let's see Knopfler play the solo this well while casually and cheerfully chatting with the crowd and thanking them for each contribution.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Fast Car

My imaginary friend Chris reports on today's demolition of Brazil, in Brazil, by Germany during the World Cup:
During one pan of the weeping crowd, one of the sportscasters just said, "They look like they're all listening to 'Fast Car' from Tracy Chapman's self-titled debut album."
Amazing line. Of course, if they were really listening to "Fast Car," their faces would show rapturous transportment as their souls were elevated by such amazing art.

But we know what he means.


(This fan-made video has only been up for about a year and a half and yet it has nearly 11,000,000 views. That's crazy.)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Help

In honor of the birthday of the most underrated drummer in history, I present...a version he didn't play on of a famous song he did play on.



Good golly, for a complete run-through...

Friday, July 4, 2014

American Land

Happy birthday, baby.


The McNicholas, the Posalski's, the Smiths, Zerillis, too
The Blacks, the Irish, Italians, the Germans and the Jews
Come across the water a thousand miles from home
With nothin in their bellies but the fire down below

They died building the railroads worked to bones and skin
They died in the fields and factories names scattered in the wind
They died to get here a hundred years ago they're still dyin now
The hands that built the country we're always trying to keep down

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Rainbow

Some bold claims made here:


Yeah? Let's look at some evidence:


Okay. I'm convinced. After all, if you can't trust the scary cop from Terminator 2, who can you trust? Also, that's one of the great rewrites of the "Louie Louie" riffs ever.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)

Sure, you might think a young R.E.M. playing a great version of one of their earliest songs is the highlight of this clip.

You'd think. And then you'd actually watch and see that the internet commenter who said
"The audience members apparently learned to dance from A Charlie Brown Christmas"
was right on the money. I mean, seriously, I think I see Pig Pen in the back.


I believe, incidentally, in the original script, those dance moves are known as secret stigma, reaping wheel, diminish, and poster torn. True story.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Arthur's Theme

There've been a spate of articles over the past year or two talking about the death of the very concept of the guilty pleasure. When it comes to art and/or entertainment, you like what you like and no need to apologize for it: if it brings you pleasure, no need for guilt.

I could not agree more.

Except when it comes to Christopher Cross.

Look, I like a lot of stuff that used to be considered by most people of discernment as bad: Genesis, Yes, Barry Manilow, the Carpenters, Air Supply, Eric Clapton, Wings. Most (although very much not all) of those have had their reputations restored, to a greater or lesser degree, over the years. Through it all I pretty much just shrugged, sometimes offering a reasoned defense and sometimes just explaining that the heart wants what the heart wants.

And it's true.

Except when it comes to Christopher Cross.

His music is simply bad. Never mind that the lyrics tend to be trite and clunky—even the gist of an idea behind the lyrics is often terrible. (Sailing! He had a hit about sailing! The next time anyone complains about music today and how much better it used to be, there's your trump card counterargument right there. You win.) ((Although I do have a serious soft spot for "Think of Laura," so maybe this entire piece is void and null.)) His voice, singing melodies that are undeniably catchy, has the amazing tonal quality of sounding completely and undeviatingly flat, even as it's actually on-key.

Now, to be fair, I only know four Christopher Cross songs. But I feel confident making such claims about his entire oeuvre anyway. Because this is a guy who got Michael McDonald to sing backup on a song, and decided to use his guest's voice...for exactly one line. Over and over. Just that line. Just that same six word sentence fragment. Anyone with judgment that bad deserves all the hackjobs he gets.

All that being said, I love this song.


It's not good. It is, in fact, bad.

But it's catchy and stupidly romantic and the theme song to one of my very favoritest movies of all times.

And the heart wants what the heart wants.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tryin' to Live My Life Without You

Such a great song.


 No wonder the Eagles stole it.


Sure, the Eagles made who knows how many millions off their cover. (Well, "cover.") But I'll bet, at least now and then, in the long dark teatime of his soul, Henley can't help but think about the drumming of the great Howard Grimes on the original and knows he's never once played drums even a quarter that sweet, no matter how much he wishes he had. And the private jets and multiple mansions and cheering throngs tamp down the pain of that knowledge...but not entirely.