Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #7

Edward Bear – Last Song

I don’t remember how old I was when I first attended a dance, but it was definitely well before my 12th birthday, because I was still 11 when I experienced my first heartbreak at one of those dances. But before Patsy Jessome tore my heart apart – yes, I went there – on an earlier Friday (probably the one exactly seven days earlier, given the trajectory of our “relationship”), she and I had certainly danced to “Last Song” by Edward Bear. I know that because every dance I went to at that point in my life ended with Larry Evoy singing us into the night. Well, evening – they always ended at 8:00 pm. (Shoutout to the friends who had my back that night when I cried like a kitten at an empty food dish – you know who you are (or maybe you don’t – it naturally was a bigger deal to me).)

My first dances were the Friday sock hops at the church hall in Florence, the village closest to mine where I attended elementary school. This was the Catholic hall and I was Catholic, but that was just incidental – I often went to the Saturday evening Protestant church hall events, and would have gladly spent time with Rosicrucians or Santerians for the chance to spring awkward boners in the close proximity of a pretty classmate.

I know the classic end-of-dance tune is “Stairway to Heaven” – the Barenaked Ladies didn’t sing about Edward Bear in “Grade 9” – but that wasn’t how our disc jockey rolled in 1975-76 Florence. Maybe he thought we were idiots – even the dimmest altar boy couldn’t miss the message – or maybe he needed the reminder himself or maybe it was a CanCon thing. Maybe he just loved the song.

In any event, this was our song. Was it any good? Eh, not really – it’s a slow poppy tune that’s perfect for the side-to-side shuffle we called a waltz, but the lyrics are nothing special and the music diabetes-inducing sweet. But at 7:55 pm on a Friday with the girl you’re in love with that week in your arms (well, your hands on her waist and hers on your shoulders), it was the greatest fucking song ever. So, yes, it wasn’t good – it was, for that brief moment in time, the greatest fucking song ever. And that’s all that matters.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited – #1

Gilbert O’Sullivan – Alone Again (Naturally)

Before we leave 1972 (for now – I’m certain we’ll be coming back this way), it seems like a pretty good year to start a new series, with a song that I expect everyone knows, and should come to know if they don’t. (I’ll have to check if the Twinsthenewtrend guys have given it a spin – and you should look these guys up (start with the “In the Air Tonight” episode) if none of what you just read makes any sense.)

As I dig through the music of the past, I am also rewriting my own history somewhat to be more in accord with what actually happened, and not my age-addled version of events. This song is Exhibit “A”. I have long believed that the first time I heard it was on “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour”. I remembered the set perfectly, remembered the staging, but somehow forgot the bloody song, which turned out to be his other big hit, “Clair”. Now I don’t know how I first came across it, so it most likely was on CJCB, the radio station that dominated my early listening once I had some choice in the matter.

It’s a fairly melodramatic song – feeling suicidal at being left at the altar, mourning the death of a parent – but I oddly always found it pretty hopeful. For though the narrator is, indeed, alone at the end of the song, he’s still standing, and sometimes that’s accomplishment enough. I love the simple sounding piano, the guitar picking, and even the strings aren’t overwrought, which is really saying something in a song about, you know, contemplating throwing yourself off a tower. A near-perfect pop song, and it never fails to get to me, despite having heard it time and time again over some 50 years.

I always thought of O’Sullivan as something of a one-hit wonder, despite knowing he actually had two hits in North America. (Don’t ask me to explain why I thought of him this way – I know it isn’t rational.) As it turns out, he actually had a third hit here called “Get Down”, which I had never heard before this week. It’s peppier than the other hits and a little creepy – he’s compares a woman’s behaviour to a dog’s – which shouldn’t be surprising coming from the man behind “Clair”, which is a super sweet song directed at a young girl who the narrator befriends, but your skin might crawl just a tiny bit if you don’t appreciate that fast enough.

O’Sullivan is still out there, releasing a new album every few years, most recently in 2018. Maybe he’s going to get another moment: that last album hit the British top 20, his first record of original material to chart since 1991, and his highest charting original since the tail end of his heyday in 1974. It is recognizably him, and I especially liked “Love How You Leave Me”, “What Is It About My Girl” and “No Head for Figures but Yours”. Pretty much every track would fit in just fine on any easy listening playlist.

He is active on Twitter, engages with fans and posts photos with his family. He looks happy, and that makes me happy, too.

Not the Pazz and Jop 1972 – Extra Credit

Even with listening to most of these records a few times before doing a post, that still leaves a lot of time – mostly on walks, but also while doing yard work – to listen to other music. This includes records from 1972 that didn’t make it into the top 20, and not just the already-commented-on Black Sabbath’s “Vol. 4”. How Jethro Tull made it ahead of any of these records is mystifying to me, and some of your favourites are likely here, too. I can’t recommend everything from 1972, but the albums listed below gave me a lot of pleasure.

  • Traffic – The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (especially the epic title track, an immediate addition to my Spotify playlist “Long Songs that Never Get Boring”)
  • Stevie Wonder – Music of My Mind (what a year he had)
  • The O’Jays – Back Stabbers
  • Todd Rundgren –  Something/Anything?
  • Randy Newman – Sail Away
  • Al Green – I’m Still in Love with You; Let’s Stay Together (also a pretty good year)
  • T. Rex – The Slider
  • Mott the Hoople – All the Young Dudes (produced by David Bowie – its a crime these guys aren’t appreciated more)
  • Miles Davis – On the Corner
  • Elton John – Honky Chateau
  • Alice Cooper – School’s Out (possibly 1972’s biggest surprise outside of Black Sabbath – I think there’s a musical theatre nerd in Vince that managed to sneak out for part of this record)
  • Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – Clear Spot
  • Eagles – Eagles (it pains me to include this – Don Henley seems like an enormous tool (just ask Frank Ocean), and Glenn Frey may have been one – but there is no denying these guys made some decent records)

Not the Pazz and Jop 1972 – #20

Neu! – Neu!

And so we end 1972 with more Krautrock. I knew early on there would be many surprises along the way – my sixth piece was about a band I’d never heard of before, after all – but did not expect things to be so international this quickly. Fantastic music was coming out of Brazil and Germany, and I don’t know if it was recognized as such in its time, but I feel fortunate that it found its place in the canon before I got around to discovering it in 2021.

This is primarily an instrumental record, with the only singing – and it is very, very generous to call it that – found on the last track. Some of this is just noise, and nothing that anyone but the most generous listeners would call a song. Highly experimental, with industrial and nature sounds, mumbled dialogue, odd tempo shifts, and droning backgrounds. In the end, this is all just a bit too weird for me in parts, but there are some tunes that I will happily revisit.

“Hallogallo”, easily my favourite track, first made me think of early New Order (but maybe it’s more Joy Division), then that Christmas song that Fallon, Sanz, Kattan and Morgan did on “Saturday Night Live”. The title is a play on a German slang term for “wild partying”, and it’s the one track here that is truly uptempo, with an incessant motorik drumbeat that gets under your skin and starts your feet tapping and hips swaying.

Highlight #2 is “Negativland”, with more motorik and a propulsive bass line over a screeching squall. The tempo speeds up a few times, then drops back to the more at-ease pace, before an all-out dash to the end over the last minute and a half or so.

“Weissensee” (or “White Lake”) is a hypnotic soundscape with gentle drums and smooth guitar licks, with an abiding sense of melancholy. “Im Gluck” (“Lucky”) is similarly mellow, and has what my Maritimer ears could not miss as the sounds of water lapping against a dock (soon confirmed when seagulls or some similar water fowl turned up). It’s incredibly comforting, and a nice way to end my travels through 1972’s best music.

Not the Pazz and Jop 1972 – #19

Allman Brothers Band – Eat A Peach

When I think of the Allman brothers, it isn’t for the music they made together. Rather, two things come to mind: one cultural (Duane’s playing on “Layla”), the other pop cultural (Gregg’s marriage to Cher). The only song of theirs I can say I certainly knew was “Ramblin’ Man”, which never inspired me to dig deeper into their catalogue. I’ve never much liked southern rock. The things I heard on the radio growing up didn’t trigger any sort of sweet spot, and it was too close to country, which, as my parents’ music, I was mostly trying to avoid in my personal listening. Later, I came to love some country, and now I think southern rock has an unearned sentimentality to much of it, a claiming of country-and-western tropes but with a poser’s lack of commitment and honesty. That’s a pretty broad brush stroke, and maybe my attitude will change as I continue along this exploratory path. But I’ll fight to hold this hill right now.

So, this album turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. It hasn’t changed my mind about southern rock because that isn’t what the Allman Brothers were in 1972. There are hints of it coming down the pike – most notably on “Blue Sky” – but this version – half dominated by Duane’s guitar, half finding a new path after his sudden death during the recording process – shows a band in transition, making for a bit of a Frankenstein. They were at heart a blues jam band during Duane’s tenure, more spiritually akin to the Grateful Dead than later notables like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their blues bonafides show up in the covers of “One Way Out” and “Trouble No More”, and there’s no jam band flex like having some 45 minutes of a record taken up by instrumentals.

Of the originals, “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” finds Gregg in a contemplative mood after Duane’s passing, and I love the uptempo ballad “Melissa”. But the highlight, unexpectedly, is the 33:41 “Mountain Jam”. I never thought I could ever love listening to a band noodle around for over half an hour, yet with every play of this track I become more entranced. The energy never flags, no one mails it in even once, and there is not a second of this that doesn’t hold your attention. Every time I started to think, “Well, this is going on a bit too long”, they would switch it up, a keen sense of the moment taking control. I can’t ever just skip to the end, because I want to hear what’s coming next. A lot of prog bands could’ve taken a lesson from this had they been paying attention.

(Originally posted on Facebook, August 29, 2021)

Not the Pazz and Jop 1972 – #18

Deep Purple – Made in Japan

I’m not the biggest fan of live albums. Live music is great, and when your favourite band takes a tight 5-minute tune and stretches it to 19:28, you are there for every repetitive second of it. On record, not so much: on your (hopefully) comfortable couch or behind the wheel of your (maybe) comfortable car, you sort of just want them to get on with it.

So, we have another Deep Purple record, with a fair bit of overlap with “Machine Head”: four of that album’s seven tracks get the live treatment. This time around it’s a seven-track double album, so you know there is at least one ridiculously long song that meanders with no apparent purpose. On this record it is “Space Truckin’”, a not very memorable “Machine Head” cut that came in at 4:31, now stretched to an almost unbearable 19:42. I lost interest long before the end, and it seemed the band might have, too, and as I strolled along the boardwalk, I stopped paying attention to the song and started thinking about what I was going to have for breakfast.

Otherwise, I liked the three tracks that were new to me – the Deep Purple canon being a mostly blank spot in my music listening history – and the length didn’t seem overdone even though each tops nine minutes. Blackmore’s playing still shines, and “Smoke on the Water” remains an unassailable classic. I just have a hard time accepting there wasn’t another record more worthy of the slot.

For my money, if you limited yourself to just picking another album that rocks, this spot in the Top 20 would’ve been much better allocated to Black Sabbath’s “Vol. 4”, in which Ozzy Osbourne and company answer the question, “Is there a limit to how much drugs you can take and still make a kick-ass metal record?” with a resounding “No!” Favourite tracks include “Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener” and “Laguna Sunrise”. But the peak for these ears is “Changes”, which I knew from a soul version that serves as the theme song to the hysterical and obscene Netflix animated series “Big Mouth”. If, like me, you are mostly aware of Ozzy as the greatly dissipated force that became a TV star in the early 2000s, the grace with which he sings this gentle tale – written by a band member about the end of his marriage – will knock you off your feet. I doubt I’ll encounter any other Black Sabbath records on the formal portion of this journey, but I’m curious enough that I might check them out anyway.

(Originally posted on Facebook, August 25, 2021)

Not the Pazz and Jop 1972 – #17

Roxy Music – Roxy Music

If your impressions of Bryan Ferry were formed from listening to the lush bedroom vibes of “Avalon” or his early post-Roxy Music solo work, as mine were, you might also consider him to be probably the coolest man in rock. His singing never seems emotional, even when love is the subject. He always presents as slick and stylish, the most relaxed man in any crisis.

Of course, once upon a time, Ferry also told us that love is a drug, and drugs can have many different effects. With this first album, it seems the band wanted to try every option in the pharmacy, as if they might never be given the key again and so were afraid to leave out any experience. What we get is a band discovering what it is on the fly, and maybe trying a wee bit too hard to sound interesting, sometimes at the expense of making a coherent song. It’s a pastiche of styles – glam, pre-punk, art rock, honky tonk, rockabilly, country – that is wilfully disjunctive at times, as if they were testing how many tone changes a single song can contain.

My favourite track here is one of those messes. “If There Is Something” starts out country-tinged. I love the guitar when it comes in at the 1:40 mark (putting me in mind of the Procol Harum tune “Simple Sister”), and that motif is repeated later with other instruments. The song slows down, becomes more lush, lulls you with its beauty, horns build the emotion, then Ferry gets lost in angsty nostalgia in the last minute and a half. It’s a tour de force, a crystallization of what the band seems to be trying to accomplish.

Another favourite is “Would You Believe”, with a middle section that harkens back to a 1950s sock hop (or would if it were a bit less raucous). The synths in “Chance Meeting” capture the emotional turmoil of unexpectedly encountering an old love. Side two has some prog-rock pretensions (especially on “The Bob (Medley)”, which is wonderfully cinematic, and “Sea Breezes”) that would have made me anxious for the band’s future if I didn’t already know how well it would turn out. They don’t get bogged down in it, as if they were just trying it on, then thought, “No, that’s not for us”. Which can be said about a lot of things on this record.

In the end, while this is all a bit too confused to make it into my permanent rotation, it’s still great to hear a band at the beginning of its arc and compare it to what came later. Though I will always prefer the cool version, the immature hot mess certainly has its charms.

(Originally posted on Facebook, August 21, 2021)

Not the Pazz and Jop 1972 – #16

Stevie Wonder – Talking Book

I’m beginning to think Stevie Wonder may be a forgotten master. He’s never stopped being popular – “Superstition” has over half a billion streams on Spotify – but, unlike Steely Dan for example, it seems that popularity is being driven entirely by oldsters rather than finding a new audience. This occurred to me when my massage therapist, who is roughly a decade younger, told me about a friend getting her to listen to some of his albums, which were new to her. His run in the ‘60s and ‘70s has few equals. But after 1980, there isn’t much worth listening to. If you came to his music after that, your main avenues of exposure would have probably been “Ebony and Ivory” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, two of the most execrable pieces of garbage ever put to tape by a major artist. And if that is how you first heard of him, then it is more than reasonable if you decided that your ears had suffered enough offence for one lifetime. Which is too bad, because, man, when he was on, it was fire.

This is one of those “on fire” records. 

I have probably heard “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” hundreds of times over the years, and it always seemed like a sappy song of no great significance. But when the needle dropped and the familiar sounds washed over me, I felt so happy. It was a beautiful sunny day, I was strolling on my beloved boardwalk, and the world just felt like a really good place for a change. That was Wonder’s power – he brought joy with his music.

His other ballads are great – especially “You and I”, which I first heard in 1976/77 as the “B” side to either “I Wish” or “Sir Duke” (I had both on 45). It leads with piano, but it’s the synthesizer underlying it that gives the song an air of needed sadness, since it is as much about the fear of losing a great love as the joy of being in the middle of it. But it’s the funkier songs that I like best. “Maybe Your Baby”, with Ray freaking Parker Jr. on guitar, is a classic strut song, the kind where you feel more confident just hearing it, like mainlining cool (though it goes on for about two minutes longer than needed). His voice is so dexterous – it might have been my fourth listen when I finally realized it’s Wonder singing the chorus. Or “Superstition”, which I was surprised to discover had a heavy contribution from Jeff Beck (whose version from the Beck, Bogert, Appice album is a much rockier approach to the song).

There is a richness to the record, and as sweet and gentle as it can sound at times, it’s never cloying, because he leans on synths, and their technical chill, rather than strings for those backing elements. There’s some great soulful pop, too, like “Tuesday Heartbreak”, with sax and wah-wah disco sounds, “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever)”. There isn’t a weak track, though “Big Brother” is a tad heavy-handed lyrically.

There’s going to be a lot of Stevie in my future – he released three more all-time great albums between 1973 and 1976 – and I can’t wait. Until now, I really didn’t appreciate his mastery. There was too much “Ebony and Ivory” clogging my ears.

(Originally posted on Facebook, August 14, 2021)

Not the Pazz and Jop 1972 – #15

Novos Baianos – Acabou Chorare

After not listening to any Brazilian music for almost 57 years, I’ve now listened to two albums in close succession, 49 years after they were released. That was unexpected.

To the extent I had any preconceptions, this is much more in line with those than “Clube da Esquina” turned out to be. I can imagine encountering these songs on a street corner, or a beach, or a tiny bar with a sweaty crowd of rowdy regulars. The title translates as “Stop Crying”, and the album is the band’s direct assault on what they saw as a far too glum Brazilian music scene. I can’t tell a samba from a bossa nova (I’ll work on that), but I do know when a band is having fun, and this record is a party. The top track for my ears is “Preta Pretinha”, which seems like a super sweet love song, and I’m going to trust my feelings on this one. Other favourites include “A Menina Danca”, “Besta e Tu” and “Tinindo Trincando”. The guitar work stands out (love the layered sound at the end of the title track), with a mix of acoustic picking and some crazy aggressive electric playing, and you can’t have danceable music without great percussion. The vocals are gentle and clean, and inviting.

This was voted the greatest Brazilian album ever by Rolling Stone’s panel in 2007. I can’t agree with that – it’s the second best Brazilian album I’ve heard, and I’ve only heard two. But it’s a fun listen that will have you swishing your hips from side to side and imagining sipping a Caipirinha on the beach. If that isn’t a worthy accomplishment, then nothing is.

(Originally posted on Facebook, August 8, 2021)

Not the Pazz and Jop 1972 – #14

Steely Dan – Can’t Buy A Thrill

Steely Dan are, apparently, having a moment, which is excellent news. I’ve always enjoyed their music, though this is yet another band that I listened to passively. And they’ve been pretty much unavoidable throughout my listening life: lots of acts have three (or more) hits off their first album, but not so many have three songs that are iconic. “Do It Again” (sort of a Latin feel), “Dirty Work” (very melancholic) and “Reelin’ in the Years” (great guitar riffs) are classics of 1970s FM radio (and the band’s three most streamed tracks on Spotify). So, it made sense that when a film called “FM” came out in 1978, Steely Dan were recruited to deliver the theme song. I had this double album on vinyl, for reasons I can’t even slightly recall (maybe to fill out my introductory Columbia House selections), but it’s a great record that included my first introduction to Tom Petty. (Mostly great – who, even in 1978, needed back-to-back cover versions from Linda Ronstadt?) It isn’t available on Spotify, but it took me less than 5 minutes to create a playlist, populated as it was with hit after hit after hit.

Everything about Steely Dan radiates cool. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking it all sounds very similar, because the band definitely leans into a smooth jazz vibe on pretty much every track. I’ve never thought of these guys as making danceable music, but maybe that’s because we dance very differently in our 50s as compared to younger years. Dancing now is sort of embarrassing: head bobbing, jaw clenched, silly faced, arms chugging, switching from hip to hip. (Not that the flailing around of our youth was any less horrible to observe.) My cats look at me with confused eyes. There were lots of tracks here that brought that out in me, which was (thankfully) within the safety of my home. Of the unfamiliar tracks, I especially liked “Only A Fool Would Say That” and “Fire in the Hole”. “Change of the Guard” is one of the poppier things I’ve heard from them. I’ve been returning to this record again and again since the first listen, taking enormous comfort in the familiar rhythms. All in all, not too shabby for a band named after a steam-powered dildo.

(Originally posted on Facebook, August 2, 2021)