Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #25

Peter Frampton – Jumpin’ Jack Flash

So, yeah. Peter Frampton. Let’s start there.

In 1976, for reasons that are not clear in hindsight and probably didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, A & M Records released “Frampton Comes Alive!” The question is why Frampton, after four albums and only modest commercial success, was deemed worthy of the double live album treatment. Clearly, someone at the label was at the top of their game because the record was a true sensation, selling around 10 million copies and producing three hit singles. Buried in all the hype was, at the end of side three, a cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. And though I read the liner notes and knew it was a Rolling Stones song, it may as well have been a Frampton original, because I had never heard the Stones’ version. I don’t know how that could have happened but it did, and that made it – still makes it – a Peter Frampton song for me. (I also never heard “Tumbling Dice” until it showed up on the “FM” soundtrack as a Linda Ronstadt cover in 1978. Someone older than me clearly fell down in not turning me on to the Stones.)

The album still kicks ass, especially the 14:15 long “Do You Feel Like We Do” and the guitar lick at 3:04 and 4:20 of “Something’s Happening”, and Frampton, now in his 70s, remains one of the coolest guys out there. His Twitter feed is a frequent delight, though it helps that we tend to agree on political and social issues.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the crux of this: every teenage boy wants to be a rock star. Okay, maybe a few don’t, but they all have equally preposterous alternate goals. It doesn’t matter if you can’t sing or play an instrument: in your bedroom, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll god. And it never really goes away: even at 58, you can at times find me in my kitchen at 5:00 a.m. supporting Tom Scholz with some wicked air guitar licks on “More Than A Feeling”.

I actually had friends who sort of were rock stars in our community. Robert Barrie and Alan Sutherland were two of my pals in high school, and they played together in a series of bands, even releasing a pretty cool single when we were in Grade 12. (Shout out to “Endlessly” backed with “Coke Avenue”, though I was always a “Kiss Your Picture” guy – you can’t beat a good power ballad.) I haven’t seen Alan in ages, but Robert’s house has always been a guaranteed stop on my rare trips back to Cape Breton. I can’t remember if they were still playing together, but when my rock star moment came, Robert was the one who made it happen.

It was summer, I’m pretty sure 1985. I was back in Cape Breton for a visit, as were some other old friends – definitely Doug Maxwell (R.I.P., you magnificent bastard – BTW, if you don’t get that that was a compliment, I can’t help you), almost certainly Sandy Nicholson, probably Darrell Clark. Robert’s band was playing a charity event and our gang went out to support the cause, of course, but mostly to drink cheap beer, try to win a raffle and see our friend play. Towards the end of the night, Robert called Doug to the stage, and, somehow thinking it was intended for all of us (it really wasn’t), the rest of our group followed, and before I knew it we had become an impromptu backing chorus on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. I learned that night that years of bedroom listens didn’t mean I knew the lyrics very well. I can’t remember what I thought was being sung, but “It’s a gas! Gas! Gas!” was not it.

It’s important to understand that I was born to be a backup singer. I would have made a great Pip, had I but only found my Gladys Knight. I can carry a tune, only sound good as part of a group, and am generally happy just to be included. The synchronized dancing would’ve been a challenge, but we’d have worked it out – it’s not like those guys were channeling James Brown or anyone equally electric. So that night, for the four or five minutes we were on stage, was glorious.

Oh, and Peter’s version? It’s good, but the original is so much better. There is, of course, no shame in that – they’re The Rolling Stones, for god’s sake – and I imagine Frampton would agree. Like all live versions, it seems, it goes on forever – twice the length of the Stones’ original. The original is a true strut song: crisp, with a propulsive backbeat, deep bass notes and a rich chorus. Frampton’s version is slightly sluggish, more plodding – more of a guitar god record than the singer’s showcase of the original – and stretched out for audience interactions.

All of this is part of why I love cover versions: every few years, sometimes longer, a new group of people gets to call a song their own. My “Hurt” is by Johnny Cash, but yours could be Nine Inch Nails’ original. Your “Always on My Mind” could be by Elvis or Willie, while mine is by the Pet Shop Boys. Versions of “Hallelujah” are like Tim Hortons – there’s one for every block in Canada. There’s no right or wrong answer here: it’s whatever makes you fall in love with the song.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #18

Henry Gross – Shannon

Before we get to this, let me state that I love this song. I wouldn’t be writing about it if I didn’t love it. But . . . I have some issues.

First, was I the only one back in 1976 who didn’t know this was about a dog? Second, if I was not the only one, and, unlike myself, you have not in the many years since been corrected in your erroneous ways by a loving spouse, then I apologise for the blunt way I just broke the news to you.

The incongruity between the verses and the song’s meaning are knock-you-off-your-chair awkward. I always thought it was about a young girl, likely the singer’s sister, and thus the heaviness made sense. But a dog? I love animals, and have had strong attachments to multiple cats as an adult. And I was sad when they passed on, even cried a few times, and sometimes feel great melancholy when I think of them now. But I never once tried hard to pretend things would get better again. I certainly didn’t need Papa to tell me what was going on, and I didn’t need to keep it all inside me.

I don’t mean to minimise the bonds that people have with their pets. Those connections can be incredibly intense. But if you had a very close relationship with a human relative – like what I believed to be the daughter and sister of the song – and then lost that person, I have a hard time believing that your emotional reaction was on a par with what you felt when a pet died. I’m talking about someone you share DNA with versus someone you bought/found and then had a mostly parasitic relationship with. (A reminder here: I love animals.)

So, notwithstanding my feelings about being deceived, I still love the song. The chorus is heart-rending, and it manipulates the crap out of you, and your voice will likely crack if you sing along, and, no, I have no idea why I thought a young girl would be looking for a shady tree other than it being something awesome to sit under and who wouldn’t want that?

It starts out like a less mellow Seals & Croft deep cut, or maybe something John Oates would’ve played around with if Daryl Hall had dumped him before they made “Bigger than Both of Us”. It has a very sunny vibe, like it was meant to be played on a tinny-sounding transistor radio on a scorching July afternoon. Gross does a sort-of falsetto on the chorus, with those Beach Boys-esque “ahs” in the background and a drummer who sounds like he’d rather be somewhere else until a little run near the end, which is then followed by 33 seconds of nothing – ahs and ehs and hums and oohs – until it ends. It’s a pretty good example of the richly-produced AM radio fodder of the mid 1970s. But, again, it’s an ode to a pet, so all those junior high school slow dances seem even creepier in retrospect.

Gross had a great start to his career, founding Sha Na Na, touring with the Beach Boys – the song is about Carl Wilson’s late Irish Setter – and having a number one song (in Canada, but it still counts, damnit) by age 25. He’s not a true one-hit wonder – “Springtime Mama”, which I remembered existing and know that I heard though it is not at all familiar to me now, also made the top 40. But I won’t argue if you count him as one: “Shannon” has 191 times as many streams on Spotify as his next most popular tune. And he’s still out there: he last released an album in 2020, and a single last month. That song – “Thank God for God” – reinforces my long-held suspicions about there being a slightly Christian angle to his song about a dead dog. Which is fine – we all need whatever help we can find when dealing with the rainbow bridge.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #9

Boston – More Than A Feeling

I loved Boston during their late 1970s heyday, but always sort of understood that there wasn’t anything particularly special about the band. I was no musical purist – in addition to my deep and unquestioned love for the Bay City Rollers, I owned three Shaun Cassidy 45s and one by Leif Garrett (no disrespect intended to either gentleman – those were great pop singles), to say nothing of Joe Dolce’s culturally questionable (and really quite awful) “Shaddap You Face”. But, track by track, there was very little that stood out in Boston’s catalogue. I was likely influenced in this direction by my all-time favourite rock critic dis; the literary genius in question queried why, in writing about “Don’t Look Back”, it took two years to re-record their first album and sleeve it in a rejected ELO jacket. Priceless.

Some bands were built to be one-hit wonders. They have one outstanding musical idea, and it explodes across the culture, takes its place among the greats, and the band itself disappears. Oh, they might still be out there, plugging away, but the collective culture no longer cares. We’ve moved on.

But what happens when a band doesn’t go away, but still has nothing more to say. Well, as one example, you get Boston.

“More Than A Feeling” is an all-time classic, an uncontested great. Now, name Boston’s second best song. There’ll be “Amanda” devotees, probably a fair number of whom lost their virginity while it played over a car stereo or a boombox in a darkened basement. There will be “Long Time” stans who’ll insist it’s as good as “More Than A Feeling” – they’re wrong – or “Don’t look Back” freaks. You might favour a deeper cut – my favourite track when I was young was “Feelin’ Satisfied” (no idea what I was thinking) and “A Man I’ll Never Be” is a solid and quite moving rock ballad that runs out of ideas three minutes in then inexplicably runs for 6:35. But the gap between “More Than A Feeling” and any of those is incon­testable.

I used to think this was a great-but-not-good song. By that I mean a song that somehow overcomes a lot that is wrong to collectively be right. I was the one who was wrong – it’s just a great song. But I wasn’t listening to it right. Context is so important for music. Some bands are meant to be played in the car, some are for when you’re out in nature, others are for when you’re a little too drunk and have gotten to discussing the meaning of life with your cat. (I recommend Big Star, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Pink Floyd, respectively.) I’m no Adele fan, but I know if she gets me at the right place and time, I will turn into a puddle, such is her demonic power. (“Over You” by Daughtry was my anthem as my first marriage started circling the drain, and until writing this, I felt no need to revisit it in the many years since.) For “More Than A Feeling”, it took the trailer for “Inside Out”. I’d heard the song hundreds of times, but matched with those Pixar visuals, I finally appreciated it, and it’s grown for me in the years since. I have a visceral reaction to the song, a physical sensation that still surprises me.

The song’s construction by mad scientist Tom Scholz is masterful. A slow build – gentle guitars and quiet vocals – explode about 35 seconds in and never let up. Brad Delp is in full roar, and Sib Hashian slides in with perfect support in his unobtrusive drumming. The peak comes around the 2:30 mark as Delp’s howl blends into an air-guitar classic solo from Scholz – 20 seconds of playing that is instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever heard it on repeat.

Then the needle moves along to “Peace of Mind” when what you really want to do is go back to the beginning. How many copies were worn out this way in 1976/1977? Boston had a good run – spread out though it was – but nothing ever came close to the very first song most of us heard from them, whether as the lead single or the opening track of the album. There is no shame in that – we should all strive for a “More Than A Feeling” moment in our lives.