Monday, December 29, 2008

Song of the Week: "Your Body, Not Your Soul", Cuby + the Blizzards

On this final Monday of 2008, our Song of the Week journey takes us on our first trip outside of America and Britain. And what a trip it is. Our flight takes us to a lowland paradise known as the Netherlands.

The year is 1966 and the Dutch have been subjected to a healthy dose of British invasion for two years. Screw the silly soft stuff like Herman's Hermits. Maybe it's living below a flood plain, maybe they are tired of jokes about little Dutch boy's sticking their fingers into dykes, maybe they are just excited that the Dutch haircut was finally en vogue, but the Dutch take to the grittier bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, The Who,  the Pretty Things and the Creation more than any other mainland Europe country. But more than just appreciating the Mod and R&B based Brit bands, the Dutch answer back with their own take on American soul and blues, adding a very unique accent to their interpretations. It becomes known as Nederbiet and, truth be told, it makes not a single ripple in the UK or the US. Outside of Holland the music explosion would rest in obscurity until a modest interest is rekindled by a handful of music enthusiasts in the 80's.

A huge treasure of music was left behind. But forty-two years of historical perspective reveals three Dutch bands as standing above the multitude of very good music to come out of Holland: Q65, The Outsiders led by Wally Tax, and our heroes of the day, Cuby + the BlizzardsCuby + the Blizzards, named after a neighbor's dog and a word chosen at random from an English dictionary, were led by singer Harry Muskee and guitarist Eelco Gelling who took to the American blues better than any of their contemporaries (with apologies to Rob Hoeke). C+B released a handful of stylized singles between '65 and '67 that would only hint at what would become their blues dominant sound that would carry them through today. Those first singles were a stunningly original collection of songs that showcased the power of Muskee's brooding voice and Gelling's truly stellar guitar work. Following regional success of their first contribution of wax, Stumble and Fall, The band's second single was a cover of Manfred Mann's excellent song, L.S.D. (ostensibly standing for Pound, Schilling, Dollar). It was a great cover, but the real gem was the Flip-Side of the single (and our Song of the Week), the self-penned Your Body, Not Your Soul.

Opening with a distinguishing floor-tom to snare intro , C+B's Your Body, Not Your Soul quickly falls into a beautifully syncopated rhythm that showcases the masterful guitar work by Gelling who surely would have been a guitar hero of epic proportions if he had been British or American. His lead at the :46 mark has all the ingredients of a great lead, but it's the distinctive solos that close out each verse/chorus (as well as the lead) that are his high point in the song. Just linger on the riff at 1:30 for a moment to really appreciate his phrasing, tone and attack. But vocalist, Muskee is never outdone. Writing in a non-native language, he shows an acerbic wit with his quixotic lyrics which, truth be told, don't always make sense but somehow translate to a youthful universality. Sung in a broken accent, the young Muskee growls out: "I tell everybody that you gave me a kick. I felt so tired I gave myself a tick, 'cause I love your body, but not your soul." The lyrics are definitely not Gloria Steinem approved but I think most people have been there at one point or another in their life.

C+B caught the attention of the British musicians who toured Europe and noted the stellar musicianship of the band. When Van Morrison broke from Them late in '66, he toured Europe with C+B as his backing band. John Mayall, too, approached Gelling about joining the Bluesbreakers. And it is rumored (probably falsely) that Jimmy Page approached members of C+B to fill the gap between his stint in the Yardbirds and  Led Zeppelin.

So, enjoy your trip to Holland this week. And please, please, please play this song loud enough to annoy someone you love. After all, isn't that the original intent of the song? Last, maybe Gelling would be kind enough to let us know what equipment he was using.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Song of the Week: "Honky-Tonk Hardwood Floor", Johnny Horton

If you were to thumb through my record collection anytime after 1983, somewhere between John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf you would find an old album from a balding man with a perma-5 O'Clock shadow spotted wearing a garish cardinal red suit. The man leaning against an Oak tree didn't look like a hipster musician. If you had to guess you'd probably peg that man for a life insurance salesman. At about this moment, you, like most of my teenage friends at the time, would turn to me with mocking laughter and say "what the heck is this? Johnny Horton?". It was always a tough record to defend. Ninety-percent of the record was filled with corny historical songs about gold mining in Alaska and the Bismarck sinking. But hidden in there was a real gem. It was his first single ever (from January of '56) and it was a hardcore honky tonk diamond called Honky Tonk Man. The same song that, at that same time of  the mid-80's would become a mini-hit for a budding young country musician named Dwight Yoakam. (Dwight and I knew what was cool even if others didn't!)

It took a lot of years but I finally mustered enough courage to dig deeper and see if this traveling salesman looking dude had any other honky tonk numbers. Did he ever. Horton (who, to the best of my knowledge, never heard a Who), it turns out had a real nice career for a couple of years cutting honky tonk numbers with limited success in Nashville and Louisiana before he struck gold with his history schlep songs at the onset of 1958.

Two solid years of brilliant honky tonk numbers, one after another. Very few of which make it onto the proverbial Greatest Hits records. Our Song of the Week is one of those numbers cut in his honky tonk phase. The song is 1957's Honky-Tonk Hardwood Floor cut for Columbia records in Nashville. Serious listeners (and the astute Flip-Side reader) might say, "hey, Morgan, this sounds kinda like the Johnny Burnette Rock-N-Roll Trio's work on Train Kept a-Rollin' that you wrote about a few weeks ago." Well, my clever friends, you are correct. That is because it was recorded with the same session guitarist; one Mr. Grady Martin.

Martin's guitar propels the song along with his dark low-octave runs that feel as if the middle has been chiseled out of the tone leaving only a low and high range. His lead is sublime in it's attack, tone and feel...and the echo is just right. Horton's acoustic, rhythm guitar is solid and the piano fills out the barrel-house feel with, as Horton says in the song, a "Jelly Roll". And what honky-tonk song would be complete without lyrics about...honky tonk: "You've got two black eyes that you picked up from a little guy the week before/So you swear off drinkin' but when you get to thinkin' 'bout the good times you had galore. You keep a-havin' your fun you lucky son of a gun on a honky tonk hardwood floor."

Shakespeare couldn't have written about honky-tonks any better. Nor could he sing it better than Horton who's voice is more than quite pleasing. Like ShakespeareHorton died in a Texas car crash in 1960, limiting his career to four short years of recording (two as a honky tonk man, two as a gimmick singer). If you like this song, I suggest you check out any of his recording between '56 and '58.

That's it for this week. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Busker Days: "Frisco Fog"

As I exit the North Berkeley BART Station at the other end of my evening trip home from work, more than occasionally I’m treated to some busking. I’ve seen an older lady on guitar belting out some soulful tunes, a wistful guy on sax, another guy plugged-in (a BART no no!) doing jazz-infused guitar work and a really amped-up younger woman jumping up and down on a milk crate playing accordion and singing zydeco. For a while, every time I came up out of the BART netherworld in the evenings I was confronted with a man deftly playing a classical guitar. 95.7% of the time he was playing the same exquisite Spanish folk song. This means either a) he and I are cosmically and tragically destined to forever cross paths exactly at the time he plays his favorite song; or b) this song is a big money-maker for him. I choose b. But if he’s making money its not coming from my pocket (OK, maybe the first time or two), and that’s saying something, because I’m the easiest, most free flowing, crumpled-up-dollar-tosser a busker is ever going to see. Ever.

Busker rule number one: if you have to rely on money-maker songs, have at least five to draw from because I’m coming by every day at 6:55 PM sharp and I’m hungry and tired and I have two kids that want to jump all over me at home. OK?

That said, my favorite end-of-the-line busker is Sam Strong who plays the recorder. I hear the sweet intertwining celtic melodies as the sound of the departing train subsides and my hand instinctually grasps for the nearest bit of loose change on me. After donating regularly for over a year, one day I went up, introduced myself and asked to record. One of the songs I recorded that day is this short, sweet, Sam Strong composition, Frisco Fog. I hope you enjoy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Song of the Week: "Going To The River", Mississippi Fred McDowell

After World War II, in the northern hills of Mississippi, a music sub-genre grew like the honeysuckle vines that predominate the small farms of that area. It came to be known as Hill Country blues, and like it's older kissing-cousin to the South, delta blues, it incorporates finger picking, a healthy dose of bottleneck guitar, and stories of murder, deception, hard days working and, of course, the frustrations of love.

If anyone was to stake a claim on being the grandpappy of Hill Country blues, it would perhaps be Mississippi Fred McDowell. McDowell played a mean sounding, repetitive, rhythm-heavy solo blues that owed much to Son House and Charlie Patton. For much of his life McDowell worked the evening in local juke joints in and around his hometown of Como, Mississippi while working the days on his small farm. He had been doing this since the 1920's but it wasn't until 1959 that McDowell was "discovered" by folklorist Alan Lomax. For Lomax and a small number of blues fans, it was like opening a time capsule. Blues had moved North, had become upbeat, incorporated full bands and was edging into what was about to become Soul Music. But in the rural northern hills of Mississippi, a handful of musicians in abutting farms, perhaps unaware of the trends of the day, were still playing it the old way. Arguably, nobody did it better than McDowell. Mississippi Fred incorporated insanely catchy riffs with his his edgy slide playing as he would double the vocals and the guitar melody in perfect pitch and timing. As he once said in a recording: "What I sing, the guitar sings." The two instruments were one. And so it was, starting at the age of 55, McDowell made his first recording, filmed his first appearances, traveled abroad for the first time and became blues royalty overnight. He would be dead 12 years later. But in that brief time, his traditional country blues left a major imprint. McDowell's neighbors, Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside would soon get recording sessions and Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones were just a couple of the popular acts who would pick up his style and would go on to have success covering McDowell.

In 1965, McDowell traveled to Germany with a group of blues musicians. Most of his tour mates, like Matt Murphy, had completed the transition to upbeat urban blues. Fred McDowell was still playing it old style. Sitting down and letting the guitar and voice sing it together. The song filmed in '65 Germany, Going Down to The River, is our Song of the Week

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mr. GeeBee's Cassette Tape Trials: Screaming Blue Messiahs "Gun Shy"

ARTIST: Screaming Blue Messiahs
ALBUM: Gun Shy
DESCRIPTION OF MEDIA: Pre-recorded cassette (Elektra Records)

IMPRESSIONS: Back in the mid-'80's I was a faithful viewer of MTV's 120 Minutes, which primarily featured bands that were a little too quirky for the Top 40 but not quirky enough to be 'underground' or 'college rock'. For the most part, the bands featured on the show didn't stray too far from standard notions of song-craft and musicianship (though Gene Loves Jezebel and We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Going To Use It certainly tested the lower limits of the latter). The play-list changed very little (if at all) from week to week, but I tuned in anyhow, hoping I'd find something new and exciting. I rarely did. But when I first saw the video for the Screaming Blue Messiah's "Twin Cadillac Valentine", I knew my patience and endurance had paid off. I think I only saw the video a few times, but the image of a bald man wearing a smart suit and abusing a battered Telecaster was burned into my brain. And the ultra-hooky "ooh ooh ooooh" vocal hook (which I later discovered was stolen 'verbatim' from a Spencer Davis Group song) continued to rattle around in my head. I didn't find a vinyl version of Gun Shy at the time, but soon, when I was working at a record store, I found this (used) cassette version.

I have to admit that it took me a while to really appreciate this album. The sound is a little tamer than I expected, given the highly-charged images from the video. (Yeah, I know that music videos are marketing tools and can't always be trusted to give wholly accurate representations of the band in question. However, the "Twin Cadillac" video seemed gritty in an authentically low-budget manner, and the on-screen energy of this power-trio really didn't seem contrived, at least not to my 17-year old eyes.) Based on the accounts I've read about their live shows (I never had the opportunity to see them), it is apparent that the ferocity that they brought to their concerts was pretty difficult to reproduce in a studio environment.

Still, once I got used to the not-quite-in-your-face production, I really dug what I heard. The best way that I can describe the Messiahs is as a blues-based R&B Bo Diddley-ish punk rock band with a free-associating street-poet singing and shouting above the din. The song structures are pretty simple but there are some interesting layers to the sound mostly due to frontman/guitar-player Bill Carter's unique style. He's definitely not a 'guitar-hero" type player, he tends to be very rhythmic in a choppy, frantic manner (I think one of his idols was original Dr. Feelgood guitar player Wilko Johnson, who himself exhibited a very rhythmic, choppy, but groovin' style). His sound is pretty bare-bones, augmented by some delay, tremolo, and occasional wah-wah. His playing style, as well as the impressionistic/cryptic lyrics, are what elevate the music and songs above conventional, trite rockabilly/blues-rock.

I like most of the songs on this album, favorites being the aforementioned "Twin Cadillac Valentine", "Talking Doll", "Someone To Talk To", "Killer Born Man", and "Let's Go Down to the Woods and Play". Interestingly, all except that last song are on Side Two, and the only songs I really DO NOT like ("Smash the Marketplace", which sounds to 'dancey", and a cover of Hank William's "You're Gonna Change", which is just kinda 'blah') are on Side One. I don't know if this is coincidence or if there were different producers (or engineers, or studios) used on different tracks on the album. Whatever the reason, Side 2 seems to have the most energy and the best songs.

VERDICT: Keep it. It is getting pretty worn out and the sound is deteriorating, but I really like it. I don't think it is even available on CD, but until it is, and I obtain it, I'll keep the cassette.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Song of the Week: "Valerie", The Zutons

It's pretty rare that I hear a song in passing and immediately become hooked. That's what happened the other day as I was flipping channels on TV. Somewhere between countless repeats of CSI: Poughkeepsie and Law & Order: The Tax Assessment Files, I ran across an HD music channel that was showing a bunch of one-off live performances. Click, click, click. What was that? I heard one little refrain and I clicked back. Live on stage was some band I didn't recognize performing a song I had never heard before. But, man oh man, that song had a nice groove to it. Before I could say "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" the song was over. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and the obvious refrain of the song, I was able to piece it together quicker than those super sleuths on CSI: Youngstown. That little song I saw on the boob-tube two weeks ago is our Song of the Week. It's called Valerie and it is performed by some lads (and a lass) from Liverpool, England who call themselves The Zutons.

I don't have too much knowledge of this band (like...damn-near none). So I'm not going to waste a whole lot of space telling you that some other band -- whose name escapes me at the moment -- is also from the seaport town of Liverpool. I'm not going to make crass comments about the ease of looking at Sax player/back-up vocalist Abi Harding. All I'm going to say is that frontman David McCabe, wrote a pretty darn catchy tune which appeared on the band's sophomore effort, 2006's Tired of Hanging Around. With nice Ray Davies like vocals and good musicianship, the song's melody will burrow into your head like a musical tick. It's catchy enough that it not only stopped me dead in my click, click, click. It also caught the attention of that Über-skank (but talented), Amy Winehouse, who covered the song and had a nice little hit with it. (warning: by clicking the following link you will be subjected to bee-hive hair-dos that may hide the missing dwarf from Wizard of Oz, snaggly Brit-teeth, legs that would horrify even the skinniest chicken, and more tracks than have been laid across Siberia).  Winehouse's Valerie.

That's it for this week. Enjoy your Song of the Week for December 8, 2008.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Busker Days: "It's Only Make Believe"

When I enter the Montgomery BART station in San Francisco’s financial district on my way home from work it’s a game of busker roulette. Sometimes there’s a guy delivering inspired gospel, clapping the beat in the main station, while other times I hear a distant garbled guitar and vocals in the opposite pedestrian tunnel. Many times it’s silent, save the shoeshine guy’s radio or the sudden BART agent announcements. Yesterday a scrawny weathered guy with cowboy boots and hat was swooning in tagalog (my guess) and recently there’s been an old man playing an erhu, a two string traditional Chinese fiddle. You never know.

If I’m real lucky, a couple of guys, one on a Gibson mandolin, the other on a Gibson LG1 or J200, will be plying their trade down in the tube station. Their musicianship is solid with the mandolin offering thoughtful fills and leads, but the showcase is the guitarist’s voice, in particular his upper register. When I hear it, inevitably my first thought is ‘liquid gold’ followed by the thought ‘get this man an agent!’ I always feel compelled to stop and listen (and donate, of course).

Recently I came with my digital recorder ready and asked the duo for permission to record, which they readily gave. The mandolinist prefaced the song by warning that it didn’t adequately showcase his partner’s voice. I beg to differ! Give a listen to their rendition of the first number 1 hit by Conway Twitty, It’s Only Make Believe, a b-side released in 1958.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Mr. GeeBee's Cassette Tape Trials: Yardbirds/Spencer Davis Group

[Introductory Note: A few years ago I was going through my boxes of cassette tapes in hopes of clearing out some of the dross and re-discovering some of the gems. I began a blog series called "The Cassette Tape Trials" to document this (still unfinished) process. After being invited to join the ONTHEFLIP-SIDE group, I figured the easiest/laziest way to get started was to recycle some of those entries.]



ARTIST SIDE A: The Yardbirds
ALBUM SIDE A: Over, Under, Sideways, Down

ARTIST SIDE B: The Spencer Davis Group
ALBUM SIDE B: The Best of the Spencer Davis Group

DESCRIPTION OF MEDIA: TDK AD90 recorded from vinyl by my buddy Jeff. If I remember correctly, he gave it to me when he was "lightening his load" before going traveling in Central America.

IMPRESSIONS SIDE A: To begin, I want to mention that I think Over, Under, Sideways, Down is pretty much the same album as Roger the Engineer. I think this was akin to what happened with early Beatles albums where the albums would have different names and track-listings in England and America. I don't know which was the "import" and which was the "domestic" release, and I don't know precisely how they differ. But I think they were pretty much the same damn album besides the name and the cover art.

Anyhow, Over, Under, Sideways, Down flat out kills. I have long been a fan of Jeff Beck's solo work, beginning with his first Jeff Beck Group album through his jazz fusion-y stuff in the 70's. And I always liked the Yardbirds, though I am guilty of generally considering them to be inferior to the Stones. However, the more I listen to this album, the more I realize that that assessment was pretty unfair. I'm sure that my judgment was clouded in large part by the fact that the Yardbirds simply didn't last very long and didn't leave behind a large quantity of impressive recordings. However, specifically comparing the Beck-era Yardbirds with the Rolling Stones of the same time period makes choosing the "better" band much more difficult, if not impossible. I now think that the Yardbirds (all of them, not just Beck) were among the most accomplished players of that time, and the material on this album is some of the strongest and most "cutting edge" of the mid-sixties rock scene.

Though it seems totally "duh" to say so, Beck's guitar work is flat-out amazing. On the blues numbers he sounds like he's playing in a roadhouse from another dimension, and on the more obviously psychedelic songs he completely transcends 'normal' dimensional realities. His sound is great, his phrasing is great, his choice of notes is great—I can't say enough good things about him. This comes as no big surprise I guess since I'm a guitar player who tends to like the "guitar heroes" of the sixties. However, I am only these days realizing how good some of the rest of the band was, especially the rhythm section (Paul Samwell-Smith on bass and…Mr. McCarty, I think, on drums). The more I hear this album, the more respect I have for the entire band's abilities. And singer/harmonica-harmonica player Keith Relf only had ONE LUNG! (At least that's what my old buddy Morgan told me.)

I like damn near every song on this album. There are a few rather light-weight attempts at "groovy, man" hippy slogan-rock ("Farewell", "Turn Into Earth", "Ever Since The World Began"), but they are generally short and easily dismissed once the next song starts. For people who like the grittier side of the British Invasion this album is a must.

IMPRESSIONS SIDE B: The Spencer Davis Group are generally known for three things: Two classic songs ("I'm A Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin'") and one super-talented singer/instrumentalist (Stevie Winwood). This album has all three of these, and sadly, not much else, to recommend it.

However, those two songs, sung by that one guy, are pretty damn amazing (despite the fact that one of them has been hi-jacked by or some such slime-bucket company for their TV commercials). Pile-driving, canyon-sized grooves, fat slabs of greasy keyboards, and unfathomably authoritative singing from the then-teenaged Winwood make these prime examples of mid-sixties British R&B. In addition, "Back Into My Life" is a great slice of pop, and "Keep On Running" is a nice upbeat stomper. But aside from that, the material is pretty tame, and at least one song, "This Hammer", is flat out embarrassing. (There is no suspension of disbelief strong enough to make me accept that Winwood ever did much "real" work at all, much less "on the railroad for a dollar a day".)

VERDICT: Keep it. Someday I'll get a CD copy of Over, Under, Sideways, Down, but until then, this stays in the collection.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Song of the Week: The Train Kept A-Rollin' (multiple artists)

We're going to take a bit of a different path this week with our Song-of-the-Week post. Instead of highlighting a song by a particular artist, we're going to highlight a particular song as performed by multiple artists. You with me?

Every once-in-a-blue-moon, a song is written that is so good that it lives an eternal life apart from the artist who created it. It only happens when the inherent quality of the song jumps from the grooves of the vinyl (or the Zeros and Ones of your digital player) to grab the listener by the ears and whisper it's cult-leader charm: "Drink my Kool-Aid." This is when the song spreads like a virus to the next artist who interprets it their way, and then spreads to the next and the next and the next. George Gershwin's Summertime, Richard Berry's Louie Louie, or Billy Robert's Hey Joe fit the criteria. And so does our choice for the first Song of the Week for December 2008: The Train Kept A-Rollin'.

 Train Kept A-Rollin' was originally recorded in 1951 in Cincinnati, Ohio by it's composer, Tiny Bradshaw. Bradshaw led a jump blues/swing band that recorded for King Records and had a number of regional hits, but his recording of The Train Kept A-Rollin' is his most enduring legacy. Again, not for his recording of it alone, but for what the song would become in the hands of others (as well as his). Bradshaw's original is a rollicking up-tempo swing number that features solid saxophone playing, subtle jazz guitar, driving drums and a great vocal performance filling out a largely tradition I-IV-V jump blues arrangement. It's a great song and worthy of praise in it's own right. But that's not where we are stopping this week on our Train ride.

About 500 miles from Cincinnati, South of the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers, a Memphis boxer named Johnny Burnette, his brother, Dorsey, and a local electrician named Paul Burlison were performing Country and Western numbers as the Rhythym Kings. About the same time a good looking young truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi strolled into Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in that same riverside town and laid down a couple of tracks in which he merged C&W with R&B. The hillbilly trio saw their calling and changed their name to Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. They picked up on Bradshaw's song and merged their country stylings with the R&B of the original Train Kept A-Rollin', much as that pioneering town-mate of theirs had done with Junior Parker's Mystery Train the year prior. The Rock and Roll Trio's seminal 1956 recording of The Train Kept A-Rollin' gave the song an entirely new arrangement and an entirely new attitude. Recorded in Owen Bradley's Nashville studio, the song, from the opening notes of studio guitarist Grady Martin's distorted descending notes to Dorsey's bass slappin' and Johnny's hillbilly hollerin', attacks the listener like a runaway freight train barreling down a winding mountain track. Perhaps the most aggressive song put to wax at that point in history, the song does away with the cool demeanor of Bradshaw's recording, rewrites a number of the lyrics, and replaces the horns with a guitar attack that was 100% original in tone and attitude. It is probably best described as sounding like a schizophrenic badger on an all-night crack bender. This radically rewrttien Train had left Bradshaw's station and was now on the nascent track towards becoming something much bigger. [editors note: For detailed recording info on this pioneering session, I strongly urge On The Flip-Side readers to check out a superb article by Vince Gordon and Peter Dijkema which turned my understanding of this song on it's head]. 

Even with these two drastically different stellar recordings logged in the history books, Train Kept A-Rollin' was still a song perhaps destined for obscurity. But Train's life span wasn't up yet. Fourteen years after the song first appeared on wax, and nine years after it had been turned into a rock-n-roll number, a gang of pimply faced, shaggy-haired, wide-eyed youths from London walked into Sam Phillips' Sun Studios to pay homage to the king of Rock-n-Roll.  
The band in question was the Yardbirds and they were touring the United States with their brand new guitarist, Jeff Beck, who had just replaced Eric Clapton in the first chair. The young Beck was a serious student of rockabilly and an aficionado of groundbreaking guitar tone. He and bassist, Paul Samwell-Smith, quickly went to work rearranging The Train Kept A-Rollin' and in doing so demonstrated how far rock had come in 9 short years. The Yardbirds' arrangement took the song in a largely new, more modern direction. Gone was the cruising blues-shouter version. Gone was the jaggedly frenetic rockabilly version. In place was an aggressive rhythm, that, for the first time, replicated the chug-chug-A-chug-chug of a train (note Beck opening the song by imitating a train whistle). Burnette's version was undoubtedly the framework for the song, however. Included in the Yardbirds version is the promotion of two Grady Martin riffs from the lead: the repetitive G-E interplay and the A-A-B-A-G-F#-E riff (both can be heard between 1:11 and 1:16 of the Burnette version) that would become the signature turnaround in the Yardbirds' take on the song. Overlaid were dual blues harp attacks, octave busting bass runs and two guitar leads that spun off the train and fought for control of the song with a doubled vocal by Keith Relf (one vocal track being a late-night boisterously drunken  slur, the other the next morning's sober recital).

Each of the three versions of the song are radically different from the next and each as great as the next in their own way. Ultimately the Yardbirds' arrangement caught on like a wildfire and became the standard arrangement of countless covers of the song by bands as diverse as Aerosmith, Motörhead, the Mossmen, and Iggy Pop. It is unquestionably the approach that endures today. it doesn't necessarily mean it is the best, however. Let me know, what is your favorite version.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Love and Arthur Lee Documentary

Great documentary about Arthur Lee and Love called Love Story, finally available to purchase. All the band members (including Brian MacLean back in the late 90s) are interviewed about the history of the original band. Love's music is used throughout (as opposed to some docs that can't get the rights) and there is priceless footage of the band and the LA music scene of the 60's.

Would have been nice to have more information about Arthur's post 60's life, even though that's probably not a very happy tale. This documentary is definitely pro-Arthur and keeps it all very positive. The troubled soul that was Arthur Lee is not really delved into and maybe that is best for a project like this that is more about celebrating the music. In the interviews with Arthur (thankfully not the only perspective, considering what a slippery personality he was) show both the sweet and thoughtful side and the bitter, angry side that unfortunately derailed his career more than once.

I feel so lucky to have seen him four times during the last years of his life. I only wish that last show at Cafe DuNord hadn't been the drunken, ranting nightmare show from hell.I would love to hear a bootleg tape of the show, as there were many "choice" quotes from Mr. Lee, including "My waterbed jumped up and made a peace sign at me!" and "I had four AK-47s pointed at my head--quatro!" I did get him to sign my copy of Love's first record before the show, which of course is now a prized possession. Sadly, he was the master of self-sabotaging whatever streak of good luck he had going. I'm sure I'm not the only one who can relate to that. Nevertheless, he did leave us with some of the most sublimely beautiful music we will hear in our lifetimes.

Buy it, rent it, whatever. See it now!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Song of the Week: "Falling", Ben Kweller

We're going to have a shorty post this day as Mr. Flip-Side and the whole Flip-Side family are traveling in Washington, DC today ahead of the American holidays.

Today's song of the week comes from Greenvile, Texas wunderkid, Ben Kweller. (Regular readers of On the Flip-Side will note that this is our third trip back to Texas. I really need to spread the love to a blue state.) This release comes from 2002 and is the closing track to Kweller's first major label release, Sha Sha.

A friend of mine, we'll call him Jeff, since that is his name, and I both have an eccentric taste in music. At least by today's standards. We dig Blind Blake records and noiserock and the fabulous Pontani Sisters dancing to the dripping wet sounds of Los Straitjackets. And we also both enjoy a beautifully crafted song. It's what allows me to switch between Mel Torme (oh come on, tell me that song isn't cool) and the Dead Kennedys without batting an eye.

This entry of Song of the Week is one of them thar beautifully crafted songs, Falling by Ben Kweller. He was 21 and residing in Brooklyn when he published this nice little piano-based number. The descending piano punches, moody interludes and Beach Boys-like ba-ba-ba harmonies all support a nice set of introspective lyrics. 

I hope you enjoy.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Song of the Week: "Thunderstorms & Neon Signs", Wayne Hancock

Imagine for a moment, you are traveling alone. It can be anywhere you want. Anywhere in the World. You've been traveling this path for days now. This is a lonesome travel. Not an "ideal vacation" travel. I don't care your mode of transportation. You can be gliding along in a '63 Cadillac, or saddled high upon a palomino, or running on cruise control in your minivan, or walking with a pack on your back. That's entirely up to you. Imagine again, you come over a gentle hill and take in the landscape ahead of you. Nobody is in sight. Your mind fills with a strange mix of emotions: awe, emptiness, a sense of being, loneliness, purposeful, separate, grandeur, insignifigance. Now tell me, where are you? And tell me one more thing, to what are you listening?

Me? I'm in sight of the lonely little town of Austin, Nevada. It's just off of isolated Highway 50, on the Eastern edge of the Silver State. It's just a speck of a town perched on a red, dusty hill and it looks as if it was created by Hollywood set builders making the next great Western film starring Glenn Ford. This is nobody's destination. At least not on purpose. But to be sure, it grabs your attention. And to be sure, at this sight I'm listening to some good old lonesome Western Honky Tonk music. It's a unique form of music. It's American. Nobody else does it and nobody else can. The British can't do it. Nor can the French. They don't have the same history with the Manifest Destiny experience. This is the music of open plains, diesel driven roads, burnt coffee, and beer soaked hardwood floors. This is the music you listen to as you drink to celebrate hard fought memories that keep you going late at night. But it's also the music to which you drink to forget all those other memories. The memories that put you on this lonesome road in the first place.

This is the music of Wayne Hancock. And this is the title song from his 1995 debut album, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs. In one breath, it's celebration; in the next despondence. It's up to you to decide which emotion. "There's a big black cloud blowin' in from the West. I've been drivin' all day, I sure could use some rest. There's a motel up ahead where I can unwind, 'cause I sure do love thunderstorms and neon signs."

Make no mistake, in a world of pretenders, Wayne Hancock is the real deal. Hancock's voice and dusty accent naturally take the listener, to paraphrase the song, to another time. What time that is, I don't know. But it's a voice from the past. A voice you used to know but can't quite pinpoint. It's a voice that says more in the one second of Buddy Holly-like hiccup or off note twang accenting the last gasp of a syllable than most artists can say in an entire album. And the band is first rate. What more does a weary traveler need? A hard slapping upright bass, country-swing guitar runs which impeccably blend that improbable mix of hillbilly and jazz, and, of course, that most lonesome of all the instruments, the pedal steel. A guitar that bends your heart as hard as it bends the gliding notes. 

To note, unlike each of the previous song of the week entrants, you can go see Wayne Hancock at your local bar. He's alive, he's touring, and he's damn good.

So, give Thunderstorms and Neon Signs a quick spin and let me know exactly where your imagined solitary-travel exercise took you...and what song you are listening to. Really, I would love to know. 


Monday, October 27, 2008

Song of the Week: "Mr. Highway Man", Howlin' Wolf

Me? No, no I've never been in a knife fight in a rural juke joint in the South. I did once cut myself shaving though. Don't laugh, it was pretty bad. I bled for hours and had to walk around with a little piece of bloody tissue stuck to my chin. Truth be told, I wouldn't know what to do if I was in a knife fight. However, one thing I do know about rural juke joint knife fights is that if they had a soundtrack (which I don't think they do), the soundtrack would have to be performed by the human knife, Howlin' Wolf.

I trust every reader here knows the work of the Wolf very well. The musical shadow he casts is as large as the man himself (that's about 6' 6" and 350 pounds). Nobody ever sounded like the Wolf before him, and nobody has sounded like him since. Nobody ever will. Most casual listeners are already aware of his excellent records he cut up North in Chicago for Chess Records in the middle to latter half of the 1950's and early 1960's. But there is another goldmine of Wolf records he cut in Memphis' Sun Studios (yep, the same Sun Studios in which a lip quivering cat named Elvis would soon record) with Sam Phillips.

In 1951 the Wolf took his head-cutting band into the small studio to record upwards of 30 songs over the course of the year. The band was every bit as powerful as the Wolf's voice. A voice that is perhaps best described as two-parts sandpaper, one part squeaky-toy stuck in the throat of an alligator, one part Pentecostal preacher, one part devils serpent, one part repentant sinner. Taken together it was 100% Howlin' Wolf.

Not many bands would be able to match the power of the Wolf. But this Arkansas-based band he put together was equal to any task. Powered by over-driven low wattage amps, a drum kit that is less played than beaten into submission, a piano that sounds like it is in danger of splintering into 1,001 pieces, and, of course, Wolf's own cross-harp playing that emulated the chug of a northbound train called Smokestack Lightning. The same train which carried away a teenage fugitive from a righteous crime. This band, like Wolf, was power incarnate.

Wolf's later, more famous work was backed up by one of the all-time great guitarists, the deft finger picker, Hubert Sumlin. But this earlier band had a guitarist with a very different approach. He was an aggressive flat picker named Willie Johnson. Where Sumlin would lay back and beautifully fill in the holes graciously left by Wolf, Johnson would challenge the Wolf at every syllable. Johnson's rugged voice came not from his mouth, but from his fingers. Through those fingers he pushed a small tube amp beyond control as he would mix in jazzy 9th chords with rusty 7th chords to create a full attack that was every bit as powerful as the Wolf. Johnson's guitar work is confident, relentless, brash and without hesitation. He never lays back as he and Wolf stab and swing at each other wildly with their musical knives.

Rock-n-Roll didn't exist yet. But that's only because the marketing department was a couple years late to the game. The work Howlin' Wolf (and occasional band member Ike Turner) did at Sun was as powerful as anything ever recorded at the studio. Sun's owner and sometime producer, Sam Phillips described the sessions with Wolf in the book, Moanin' at Midnight, the Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf : "I tell you, the greatest thing you could see to his day would be Chester Burnett (aka, The Howlin' Wolf) doing one of those sessions in my studio....his eyes would light up and you'd see the veins come out on the back of his neck. Awooooo!" Bold words from a man who recorded Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Ike Turner, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Mr. Highway Man is just one of the many great songs Howlin' Wolf and his band recorded that year in Memphis. Moanin' At Midnight, Evil, Howlin' Wolf Boogie, How Many More Years. Too many great songs to tell you about on two great albums. Enjoy...and don't get hurt!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

New Robert Johnson Photo?

Vanity Fair has a new must read article about the possibility of a third photo of the legendary and photo-elusive Robert Johnson being discovered. The new photo shows what may be Robert Johnson (left) posing with fellow itinerant blues kid Johnny Shines (right) who was known to have traveled and "cut heads" (a blues busking competition to draw crowds) with RJ. It should be noted that Shines had stated on record years ago (before the photo surfaced) that he and RJ had once posed for a photo while traveling through the juke joints of Arkansas.

I spent 10 minutes (okay, more, but I don't want to come across as super-geeky) looking at the two known photos and this third photo, and I must looks very much like RJ to me. RJ's long spidery fingers are as distinctive as any feature, his downturned lip and his glaucoma damaged left eye all match up nicely. And then if you look at the parlor shot of RJ (the bottom photo) and compare the tie to that in the newly discovered photo, dang if it doesn't look to be the same. Read the linked article, it is very well written.

Song of the Week: 'Going Underground', The Jam

A couple of weeks ago I was leaning against a pool table in a loud music venue drinking some Dale's Pale Ale and listening to the Austin-based group, The Band of Heathens, cover their second Bob Dylan song of the night. My friend, Roger, and I began talking about the prolific writing of Dylan, the elusive nature of writing hit songs and how so few people can do it with regularity. I'm not talking about just writing a great song (as we highlighted last week). Truth-be-told, great songs are as abundant as paparazzi at another Britney Spears meltdown. I'm talking about writing a hit. And not just once, but hit after hit. Not many have been able to do it: the aforementioned Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Gershwin, Hank Williams and Willie Dixon immediately jump to mind.

Should someone like Paul Weller be on this list? Some may ask, who? Paul Weller, unlike the others already mentioned, remains largely unknown in the United States but was hugely prolific in his native England. For five all-too-brief years from '77-'82, Paul Weller's band, The Jam, dominated the airwaves in England with 18 consecutive top-40 hits, including 4 number one hits. Only the Beatles, The Stones and the German Luftwaffe had ever dominated the air over Britain more than did the Jam. But in the U.S., Paul Weller and The Jam were as common as a juggling platypus. Even as The Jam's competitors -- namely Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols and the Clash - made inroads with the provincial United States record-buying public of the day, The Jam were nowhere to be found on FM radio.

Why? It wasn't for lack of quality songwriting or performance ability, that's for sure. The Jam exceeded in both categories. The answer lies more in a mix of cultures, I believe. The Jam were a VERY British band. Unlike someone like Mick Jagger who often affected an American accent when he sang, Weller sang with a thick British accent about peculiarly British experiences. Evidence Down In the Tube Station At Midnight. How the hell was a kid from suburban Phoenix supposed to relate to a song about being mugged on a subway by skinheads who "smelt like pubs and wormwood scrubs and too many right wing meetings"? And that is if the kid can understand what the heck Weller was saying! And unlike the Sex Pistols or the Clash, whose singers also sang proudly with working class accents, the Jam didn't offer a visual curiosity that demanded attention (even if it was only scorn). Neatly trimmed in their black and white mod suits, paisley scarves and bowling shoes, the band's visual approach came across to Americans as little more than Euro-square.

But back home, The Jam were chart-toppers. Perhaps the pinnacle of that run of 18 consecutive top 40 hits for The Jam occurred with their first release of 1980, a stunning double A-side single of Going Underground b/w Dreams of Children. The single went to number 1 and cemented the trio as the darlings of the press and the undisputed rulers of the charts. Weller's rousing anti-Thatcher/Reagan era Underground was a political screed that questioned the public's thirst for war ("the public gets what the public wants/but I don't get what this society wants") while delivering a rousing musical score of rising power chords and pounding bass that barely give Weller time to breathe between verses. The song hits her crescendo at 2:19 as the over-driven Richenbacker pulls the song out of a staccato rhythm-section interlude. Weller parallels the guitar's melody as he venomously barks out "braying sheep on my TV screen/make this boy shout! Make this boy Scream!"

It's hard not to get your heart pumping on this one. I hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Song of the Week: The 13th Floor Elevators - I Had To Tell You

The other night I finished watching a documentary entitled Your Gonna Miss Me. It's a doc about Roky Erickson, the troubled front-man from the legendary 60's garage band, the 13th Floor Elevators whom are perhaps best known for their 1966 single, You're Gonna Miss Me.

It's certainly more about Roky than it is about the Elevators, but there is a lot of juicy stuff about the band nonetheless. As is so often the case, one comes away wondering "what could have been"? What could have been if they had better production, better management, better decisions in terms of drug use? But more than that cast of woulda, shoulda, coulda usual suspects, you wonder what could have been if Roky had better legal counsel, a better mother (the home film footage of mom's self-made Beast King movie is very, very odd), a better father, and of course, a better sense of what is real and what is not real. What could have been? As with Syd Barrett, one gets the sense that Roky was a brilliant musical mind that heard things that others didn't. But you also get the sense, as with Barett, that things were terribly wrong inside the head. Add an alleged 300 drops of LSD, and suddenly the cracks in the House of Usher become unfixable fissures.

Needless to say, I turned to their records not long after watching the doc. More and more these days I turn to their second album, Easter Everywhere. While it is not as "cool" as Psychedelic Sounds of..., EE has better production values and represents some of the bands' best songwriting.

The standout from the album, in my opinion, is the sublime "I Had To Tell You." I can't get enough of it. It's filled with warbly out of tune guitar, funky Rick Danko-like (of The Band) harmonies, a twittering straight tuned harmonica that hits the highest registers, and some of the best lyrics you can get outside of Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry.

The line from the song that always tugs at my ears is a quixotic line that plays up the contradiction between control and chaos. A line that raises hope in the same instance that it dashes it. A vulnerable Erickson pleades, "If you fear I'll lose my spirit, like a drunkards wasted wine, don't you even think about it, I'm feeling fine."

It never fails to get me. Just click on the post title to listen to it. I hope you enjoy it half as much as I do.