Sunday, May 27, 2007

Two Events.

Yesterday, Friday, was kind of emotionally overwhelming for me. (No, I’m not getting personal. Still talking about art/entertainment/culture here.)

The first thing I do every Friday, after I’ve clocked in at work, is to listen to the new Never Not Funny podcast. It’s become a part of my daily life, an hour (and change) every week of hanging out with three of the funniest, most personable, least-obnoxious people on the planet. Running gags from its past year of recording have become a part of my life and way of thinking about things. I’ve even started to think that Peter Cetera might not be so bad.

Well, everything changed this week. One of the three is gone, and like other listeners have said, it’s a bit like seeing your aunt and uncle (both of whom you love and can’t imagine without the other) divorce. I was pretty shell-shocked the rest of the morning. Mike Schmidt is one of the most quick-witted people on the planet, and the fact that I won’t be hearing him every Friday, while I will be hearing Jimmy and Matt, makes my world a little darker. Of course, que será será and all that; what’s best for the guys is what’s best overall. And reading Mike’s point of view made me feel easier about it. It’s not Alec Baldwin/Kim Basinger time here.

(By the way, the only reason I know about the Baldwin/Basinger thing is because my favorite TV show of last season was 30 Rock. In general, I try not to keep up on the personal lives of celebrities.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After leaving work, I went to a matinee of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Which is notable partly because I almost never see movies — in fact, if I’m not mistaken, the last time I was in a theater was to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest — and partly because if I’d been feeling numb before, I was nearly dead afterward. I enjoyed myself immensely, but my primary memory is of an experience that went on and on and on. (This is how I usually remember movies, though — I don’t see very many for a reason.) There are some beautiful, strange, delightful, and even lyrical moments in the movie, but mostly it’s a big, dumb, action-packed, goofy, cheaply sentimental extravaganza. Which is what I was expecting: I bought popcorn and Coke and gave myself up to hedonism and spectacle. Which isn’t to say that I don’t understand the criticisms of the movie: it’s too plot-heavy, too convoluted, too ... much.

On the other hand, it’s not quite standard Bruckheimer: there are some surprisingly gorgeous and inventive sequences, especially in the first half. Gore Verbinski’s a better director, and about half the cast is better actors, than the movie deserves. Which is what made the first one such a pleasant surprise — it was better than it had to be — but now, of course, expectations are higher, and it’s bound to disappoint. I miss the low-pressure fun of the first movie, but if we must have supernatural pirate trilogies, then this is about as great a one as we could expect given the realities of blockbuster filmmaking. (And I do hope it’s just a trilogy. Star Wars is the cautionary tale of our generation.)

I did like [spoiler alert, and I mean it] that Orlando Bloom’s character, who the audience obviously doesn’t care about, gets his heart ripped out and an eternal curse laid on him at the end. Didn’t make him any more interesting, but at least he wasn’t sacrosanct, which is generally how the movies treat the boringly noble.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So then I went home and spent the next six hours scouring the Internet for a rare 1971 Japanese psychedelic album. Love Live Life + One’s Love Will Make A Better You, where are you?

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Mind-Melting Netherworld Of Acid-Fried Guitar.

So I guess as a reaction to all the the two-minute rock & roll songs I’ve been living with while I compiled the previous list (to make things worse, I’ve only just now come across Carl Smith’s “Loose Talk,” which indisputably belongs on the list), I’ve been venturing this week into the mind-melting netherworld of what I believe Dominique Leone refers to as Out Music. (If I could find a copy of his fabled 5xCD Out Rock Box, or hell dude just a tracklisting, it’d be easier.) You know — krautrock, kosmische, jazz-rock, Canterbury, early electronic music, minimalism, Yoko Ono, the outer edges of funk, progressive, psychedelic, and folk. I have way more piled up to listen to than I’ve listened to, or than I’ll have time to listen to, but for now some initial thoughts.

I spent much of today in an odd synaesthetic feedback loop triggered by Allmusic’s description of Manuel Göttsching’s solo at the end of “Echo Waves” on Ash Ra Tempel’s Inventions For Electric Guitar (got all that?) as “acid-fried guitar.” And while the point of the criticism was on target — the solo doesn’t really belong with the trancey, Durutti Column-esque ten minutes that came before — that particular guitar tone, and that particular phrase, has been eating away at my brain ever since. Because while I’ve never done acid, I know all about frying in the sun, and being metaphorically fried, and the texture and snap and crinkly rustle of fried things, and I’ve been jonesing like a pork rinds junkie for another shot of that crispy, grease-translucent guitar tone. So more Ash Ra Tempel for me, then.

I remain astonished that Miles Davis’s On The Corner was universally panned when it was released. Were jazz critics really that out of touch? In what universe could sounding like the next step after There’s A Riot Goin’ On be dismissed? What the hell dudes. And then it had to wait until John fucking Zorn declared it cool before it was even issued on CD.

Not exactly Out Music, but pop geeks like me generally don’t have any other place to file contemporary classical, so here goes: John Adams’ Century Rolls is my kind of symphonic work, fast-paced, funky, witty, and catchy, with broad allusions to other musics, both classical and non (dig the ragtime in the first movement) and — on the Nonesuch recording, anyway — a pop sense of space to the production. Less immediately thrilling, but pleasant to the old-school comic geek I was one or two lifetimes ago, is Michael Daughtery’s 1995 Metropolis symphony, with movements titled “Lex Luthor” and “Myxzptlk” and “Oh, Lois!” It’s breezy, optimistic music in a Thirties mode, and sounds like it would probably make a good soundtrack if Warner Brothers tried to pick the Fantasia idea up from Disney. But the best part is the last track on the CD, apparently not part of the symphony, titled “Bizarro.” It’s orchestral funk. And not in that Isaac Hayes/Curtis Mayfield/Norman Whitfield studio-oriented way, but a live orchestra hammering away while a fat bass (sounds like amplified electric, but for all I know it’s tuba and kettledrums) sets a booty-shaking pace. It should be heard.

(No Messiaen in the local Borders tonight. I suppose there wasn’t room next to the ten shelves of Mozart.)

After much debate, I still can’t figure out which Brigitte Fontaine album I like best. The early ones are easier to swallow in a pop sense, but the later ones have stunning moments of musical genius, mixed in with a whole lot of self-indulgent nonsense. (And by later, I mean, like, late-70s. Apparently she’s had a career since then, but I’m not interested in the trip-hop remixes just now.) I will say that the song “Patriarcat” is high up on my list of great pre-techno electronica. (I don’t have such a list. But I’m almost tempted to make one just to put “Patriarcat” on it.)

Flower Travellin’ Band’s Satori, Les Rallizes Denudes’ ’77 Live, and Magical Power Mako’s Super Record are all pretty great. Makes me wonder if there’s more to the Japan scene. Like maybe with some female vocals. (I’m not sure why I feel a scene isn’t complete without female vocals, but I was able to dig into German avant-rock more easily once I found out about Dagmar Krause and Rosi Mueller. And whoever sings on Popol Vuh’s stuff.)

And then, while driving home tonight, I noticed that, after all, nothing is quite as satisfying as early Solomon Burke tearing a soul-sized hole into bland countrypolitan backing tracks. “Cry To Me” still socks it to me, every time.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

101 Great Rock & Roll Songs Of The 1950s.

Halfway through this list, I realized that one of the songs I had wanted to include when I first conceived the list had somehow gotten left out. (I blame the accounting department. Disciplinary action will be taken.) So here it is: think of it as a bonus track to a killer playlist.

Chet Baker “Let’s Get Lost”
(Frank Loesser/Jimmy McHugh)
Pacific Jazz, 1955
Only tangentially connected to rock & roll (it was a huge influence on Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello; its airy pop structure predicted the non-blues forms that rock artists would soon develop), this song is one of the highlights of all of 50s music, period. Baker’s intimate, androgynous voice represented a way to bring 30s-style crooning into the postwar era, and would be imitated by David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, among others; and his laid-back trumpet style was to the pop crossover market what Miles Davis was to the hardcore jazz market. But more than anything, Baker is one of the definitive junkie-artists. Only Charlie Parker and Johnny Thunders squandered as much staggering talent in a downward spiral of heroin addiction. Baker survived longer than either; but he never again matched the world-beating heights of his early career.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

100 Great Rock & Roll Songs Of The 1950s, Part X.

Frankie Ford “Sea Cruise”
(Huey Smith)
Ace, 1959
Hey, where have I heard those horn charts before? (No, really. The first time I heard this, I had to stop and root through my iPod to figure it out.) The Clash borrowed them for their cover of “Wrong ’Em Boyo,” which is appropriate, since the rocksteady of the original was anticipated by this song’s bouncy rhythm. It’s pure ska (maybe it’s even dub, with all those foghorn sound effects, not to mention the fact that Frankie Ford quasi-ethically dubbed his voice onto Huey “Piano” Smith’s track). But at the same time, it’s surf music — that climbing melody sounds like every early Beach Boys hit — and then too it’s just prime New Orleans r&b, danceable and fun and oo-wee, baby, oo-wee.

Charlie Rich “Big Man”
(Charlie Rich/Dale Fox)
Sun, 1959
When Sun lost Elvis to RCA, the Army, the movies, and sentimental glop, they scrambled to replace him. To all appearances, Charlie Rich was the perfect fit. His emotional baritone sounded a lot like Elvis’s, but he had better phrasing; he was drop-dead gorgeous, but more distinguished; and he could write killer songs, and play terrific jazz-inspired piano, and — and — but no. He had a couple of minor hits, and then hopped from label to label all through the 60s, playing a sophisticated and unique version of country-soul-jazz that found no takers even as country and soul and jazz were all exploding into radical new forms. Then finally, his hair white from the strain, he broke through with “Behind Closed Doors” in 1973. But back at Sun, as a brash young Turk, he was already crossing boundaries and fusing black gospel with old-time religion (and maybe inspiring Randy Newman along the way) — the Big Man of the title is God himself.

Jimmy Reed “Baby What You Want Me To Do”
(Jimmy Reed)
Vee-Jay, 1959
The slinkiest, drag-funkiest of the classic bluesmen, Jimmy Reed is probably the person most responsbile for the Rolling Stones’ perfected 1968-1972 sound. (I mean, aside from Jimmy Miller and the band themselves.) But to say he inspired a bunch of white toffs is to say nothing at all; he was also one of the great songwriters of the blues; and I do mean songwriters, not just someone who threw some (possibly original) lyrics on an ancient AAB. Like a rural juke-joint hero, he played guitar and harmonica at once — like an urban sophisticate, he dressed sharp and played sharper. This song is remarkable for its slowed-down drive, a moderate tempo that pulls you along, a way of creating suspense even when the lyric is just a not-quite-sure-about-love song.

Jackie Wilson “Lonely Teardrops”
(Tyran Carlo/Berry Gordy, Jr.)
Brunswick, 1959
The man who started Motown. Or rather, who gave Berry Gordy enough hits that he started Motown. But the label’s signature glossy funk hadn’t yet been developed; Wilson is, if not exactly raw, at least unvarnished, switching easily between the modified walking blues of the verses and the high-octane gospel swoop of the chorus. He was called Mr. Excitement for a reason: his voice sounds like it might burst if it stays on a note for too long, running up and down the scale and breaking into whoops and secular hallelujahs over the female chorus. Soul had arrived, indeed, and Jackie Wilson would see that it invaded the bustling, automotive Detroit in all its pomp and splendor. This song is not unlike the great orgy of classic American car design at the end of the materialistic 50s, all chrome swoops and flashy tails and incandescent lights.

Nina Simone “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”
(James Cox)
Colpix, 1959
Where do you file Nina Simone? Is she jazz, folk, soul, funk, singer/songwriter, what? (Well anyway, she’s not rock & roll, I hear you shout.) She’s maybe the primary reason I don’t believe in filing music. Or at least an excellent excuse. Check it: the song is an ancient vaudeville lament, given life and dignity by Bessie Smith in the year of our Lord 1929 — the year of the Depression. It was covered by jazz-blues singers like Jimmy Witherspoon, who gave it a postwar kick. Then Nina Simone got her hands on it, and turned it from a wry smile at fair-weather friendship to a growling condemnation of the slow movement of civil rights. It’s blues, but with soul. And jazz chops. See what I mean about categories? (And then, yeah, I hear some guy named Derek and his backing band played it. Whatever.)

Dion & The Belmonts “A Teenager In Love”
(Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman)
Laurie, 1959
It’s not that I wanted to point out how young and winsome and, well, beatupable the young Dion DiMucci sounds here. (But seriously, this is the tough guy that would sing about Runaround Sue and call himself the Wanderer?) And it’s not that I wanted to point out how doo-wop was being co-opted and homogenized by white — mostly Italian (you know, ethnic but not too ethnic) — groups, and watered down for the sock-hop market. It’s not even that I wanted to point out how much the lyrics encapsulate a certain self-pitying romanticism inherent in American adolescence. It’s that I wanted to point out that this was Doc Pomus’s first great song. Give it up for Doc Pomus.

The Shirelles “Dedicated To The One I Love”
(Ralph Bass/Lowman Pauling)
Scepter, 1959
The first mega-successful girl group, and the one on which all subsequent stars of the form would be patterned, they were still unknown failures in 1959, when their cover of the “5” Royales’ “Dedicated” stiffed in the charts. (An overweight teenager named Cass Elliott heard it, though, and that’s how the Mamas & Papas had one of their fluffiest pop hits. But back to the Shirelles.) Their producer, Luther Dixon, gave them the glossiest string backing regional-label money could buy, and had the song start out with one of the most thrilling cries in all of pop music. (Modern scavanger-pop artists Johnny Boy play with it to gorgeous effect in their “Johnny Boy Theme.”) But no go; it tanked, and the Shirelles wouldn’t become legends until they got a Goffin/King song and started exploiting teenage sexuality.

Brook Benton & Dinah Washington “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)”
(Brook Benton/Clyde Otis/Jules Stein)
Mercury, 1959
Dinah Washington is an acknowledged jazz legend, of course. Why then should it surprise anyone that she had her biggest success on the rhythm & blues charts? Brook Benton isn’t even close to being a jazz singer; although as a soul singer, he was pretty advanced for 1959, coming on like a less whiny Marvin Gaye. Together, they created pop magic that dominated the close of the 50s but falls through the historical cracks today because it doesn’t fit easily into Ken Burns’ vision of jazz or Rhino Records’ vision of soul. Today it reads (especially those swooping strings) like a more easygoing version of Philly soul from the 70s; they trade quips and try to crack each other up while playing around with pitch and meter in a very jazzy, soulful kinda way.

Wanda Jackson “Riot In Cell Block #9”
(Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller)
Capitol, 1959
The First Lady of Rockabilly, the great Atomic Yodeler herself, ladies and gentlemen, Wanda Jackson. She only spent two years as a rocker, but in that time she made most of the male rockers look like pussies. Listen to her lewd twang, and then she breaks out her gutbucket snarl; listen to to the shrieks and screams of the femmey chorus behind her; listen to the sheer velocity and wham! of this thing, and know: you’ve just been rocked. And this wasn’t a one-off deal, either: this is maybe one of her tamer efforts, a cover of an L.A. doo-wop song (but juiced up with prison-dyke innuendo because of who’s singing it) that plays as her version of “Jailhouse Rock.” She could also sing straight country, and make your mama weep while doing it; but it’s as the first of the riot grrls that she’ll always be remembered.

The Isley Brothers “Shout!”
(Rudolph Isley/Ronald Isley/O’Kelly Isley, Jr.)
RCA, 1959
It’s gospel gone feral; it’s the most primitive, joyous, rocking, funky, soulful, extravagant, howling, swooning, stomping, jubilant, gorgeous sound on earth. It’s the Isley Brothers, and it’s not even their freaking peak; they’re just getting warmed up. It’s a call-and-response chant, a field holler amphetamined by God and the devil into something that can get even white folks to dance. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson — who? This is soul, brothers and sisters, this is the new generation, this is what will come tumbling out of the chicken shacks and chitlin halls in the next decade, this is Otis and Wilson and Tina and Aretha and James and Sly — this is the end of the Fifties and the beginning of the future.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

100 Great Rock & Roll Songs Of The 1950s, Part IX.

The Johnny Otis Show “Willie And The Hand Jive”
(Johnny Otis)
Capitol, 1958
He was a Greek entrepreneur who played black so well that his son could be mistaken for an honest-to-God bluesman by David Byrne. The man born Ioannis Veniotes ran the biggest rock & roll circus on earth, something even the Stones couldn’t make pay in 1970. As a talent scout (an impressive chunk of his artist roster is on this very list), bandleader, disc jockey, and songwriter, he was one of the four or five most important architects of rock & roll culture. So it’s kind of a pity that his most famous song is most remembered for biting Bo Diddley’s signature “shave and a haircut, two bits” beat and riding it to bigger success than Diddley ever had. Otis knew how to play the success game, though, and when he put on a show, you got your money’s worth.

Frank Sinatra “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”
(Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer)
Capitol, 1958
Yes, Sinatra. I could go into an elaborate defense of Old Blue Eyes, and this song in particular, as rock & roll — the man’s fuck-you attitude, the blues roots of the melody, the Springsteeny heart-on-sleeve macho of the lyric, the way it’s influenced barfly personas from Hank Thompson to Tom Waits — but instead I think I’ll just marvel at Bill Miller’s sensitive, nuanced accompaniment on the piano, the bluesy, woozy saxophone punctuation, and Sinatra’s own exhausted, extended outro. He first recorded the song in the 1947, but that was a 45-rpm hepcat version, without the adult weariness he shows here. No matter what he thought about rock & roll — he was.

Ritchie Valens “Donna”
(Ritchie Valens)
Del-Fi, 1958
The thing that always surprises me about Latino rock & roll is how smooth it is. Although I don’t know why that should be a surprise: there’s the “Latin lover” stereotype, of course, but even Latin American folk music has fewer rough edges and blue notes than the Africanized U. S. version. Anyway, Valens is mostly remembered today as a co-fatality of Buddy Holly’s, or maybe for the safe multiculturalism of “La Bamba” — but he was an honest-to-God star in his own right, and his Greatest Hits is no less deep than any of his contemporaries except maybe Elvis. It might be easy at first listen to confuse this with any number of other malt-shop teenybopper ballads, but listen closely: this is the one with the kickin’ tex-mex electric guitar in the background.

Eddie Cochran “Summertime Blues”
(Eddie Cochran/Jerry Capehart)
Liberty, 1958
What “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was to the summer of 1965, and “God Save the Queen” to the summer of 1976, “Summertime Blues” was to the summer of 1958: a calculated teenage-rebellion anthem married to a killer hook and a ferocious rhythmic pulse. I can’t abide the know-nothings who claim to prefer the Who’s version (or even, weirdly, Blue Cheer’s). Roger Daltrey always sounds like a powerful badass, when the whole point of the song is the frustrated powerlessness of the singer; Cochran nailed the nerdy teenage angst. Okay, I can see preferring Entwhistle’s basso — but I find it cute that the original was trying to sound like Johnny Cash and (naturally) failed.

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross “Gimme That Wine”
(Jon Hendricks)
Columbia, 1958
The primary exponents of vocalese — a post-bop form of vocal jazz that sounds remarkably like just singing a song; the genre tag is really unnecessary — Lambert, Hendricks & Ross were also part of a hard-to-define and poorly-documented movement that combined hepcat jazz, Broadway blues, the progressive politics of the Greenwich Village folkies, and the more intellectual side of rock & roll. As teenage rock & roll became more divorced from blues, and jazz moved into decidedly less hep quarters, the movement faded away; but while it was there, it produced lovely things like this: a distant relative of “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” it’s a comic r&b number given a high-class production.

The Kingston Trio “Tom Dooley”
Capitol, 1958
Before you laugh: how many groups can say that they are personally responsible for the existence of both Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys? The scrubbed-up folk of Pete Seeger and the Weavers was transformed into pop gold by the Kingston Trio (in those days, Caribbean music was still considered folk), paving the way for the commercial success of Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, and some kid from Hibbing. But their harmonies — and especially the way they fragment their harmonies, one guy jumping ahead of the others or dragging behind — was enormously influential to Brian Wilson’s young compositional instinct too. And, of course, their beach-casual striped-shirt image gave the Beach Boys their iconic costume.

Janis Martin “Bang Bang”
(Clavelle Isnard)
RCA, 1958
She was billed by RCA as “The Female Elvis.” She wasn’t — Wanda Jackson was — but she was pretty hot stuff anyway. Her big hit was (natch) “My Boy Elvis,” but it’s this gleeful sexual metaphor (from a young girl who qualified as jailbait in many states) that’s the keeper; “If you want to make a deal/Cock your pistol and rooty-toot shoot” has only one meaning that I can parse, anyway. But the icing is the chorus: there’s so much echo on her voice that it practically counts as call-and-response, and you see where R.E.M. got the idea for their song of the same name. Plus, that huge drum sound; I’m always a sucker for metaphorical snares beating out a martial tattoo.

Johnny “Guitar” Watson “Gangster Of Love”
(Johnny Watson)
King, 1958
Man, Steve Miller can’t catch a break, can he? First I show up his “pompetus of love” shtick, and now I drag out the original Gangster of Love. Don’t get this confused with Guitar Watson’s 70s funk remake of his trademark song, either: this is straight stomping blues, with his wicked guitar squeezing out sparks. It’s a shame that his funk years are better documented on reissues these days; he was one of the original guitar heroes (his instrumental “Space Guitar” has to be heard to be believed), and if you can tell he’s just grinning from ear to ear at his own badass-cowboy pose, that makes it all the more charming.

Chuck Berry “Memphis”
(Chuck Berry)
Chess, 1959
Frequently acclaimed as the greatest lyricist in rock & roll (at least until Dylan), Chuck Berry’s less noted for his stylistic experiments. Most of his well-known hits (“Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock & Roll Music,” “Johnny Be Goode”) are patterned on the same style, but he was also proficient at hot-rod (“Maybellene”), teen-pop (“Almost Grown”), Latin balladry (“Havana Moon”), and — as this buried b-side attests — country. Yes, it’s a country song — specifically, it’s stripped-down western swing — from the loping pace to the Nashville-clever lyrical surprise of Sweet Marie not being who you thought she was. But it’s also a predecessor of slow-burn funk: the hook, as well as the song’s pace, is set by the bass guitar. Man, Chuck Berry could do it all.

Lefty Frizzell “Cigarettes And Coffee Blues”
(Marty Robbins)
Columbia, 1959
I love the way that he pronounces “cigarettes,” as though he was going to say “cigars” but looked at the lyric sheet just in time. I love the rippling honky-tonk piano that cascades throughout the song. I love the swinging rock & roll beat, accented by electric guitar chords that sound just a half-beat away from being ska. I love the general smoky, late-night atmosphere of the song, as though it were itself a slice of the nicotined, caffeinated life described in the lyrics. I love whoever’s adding those keening harmonies on the chorus. Most of all, though, I love Lefty’s voice, rich and buttery and sounding very much like he just set down his cigarette and coffee cup before the session started.

100 Great Rock & Roll Songs Of The 1950s, Part VIII.

Mose Allison “Young Man Blues”
(Mose Allison)
Prestige, 1957
Yeah, you probably have the Live At Leeds version in your head already (“ain’t got sweeeeeeet...”). One of the measures of Pete Townshend’s genius is that he could hear the understated menace and generational anger in Allison’s mellow little post-bop ditty and adapt it for the hard-rock era. Influenced by Bud Powell and the King Cole Trio, Allison was a laid-back pianist and a thin, reedy vocalist, but a smart, subversive lyricist, one of the few jazzbos who qualified as a songwriter instead of merely a composer. And this isn’t only rock & roll by mod proxy, either — the sophisticated stop-start roll of the music anticipates the Pixies with their quiet/loud dynamics. Of course, trust the Who to make it all loud.

Nat King Cole “Send For Me”
(Ollie Jones)
Capitol, 1956
No, really. No, listen. Have you heard the song? The conventional wisdom is that Cole abandoned rhythmic music when he went pop in the late 40s (though his early trio sides are acknowledged proto-rock in their minimalist swing), and while it’s true that his 50s material is by and large string-drenched pap (though his rich, velvety voice was always worth soaking in), he paused in his treacly descent just long enough to issue this stunning, breezy r&b confection. Anchored by his easygoing piano and textured by a breathy saxophone, it’s a clear predecessor to Sam Cooke’s best work — and even, on the production end, to Pet Sounds. I hadn’t even heard the song before I began research for this list; but now it’s one of my very favorites.

The Everly Brothers “Bye Bye Love”
(Boudleaux Bryant/Felice Bryant)
Cadence, 1957
Another Townshed connection: the Everly’s hard, percussive strums on their acoustic guitars were apparently the inspiration for his power chords. And they were something new under the sun — a country brother act that (unlike the Delmores, the Louvins, or the Stanleys), embraced the teen-oriented rock & roll present and pop future. It helped that they practically were teenagers; no one with more years under their belt could so cheerfully, even blithely, sing about giving up on women entirely. You can tell they don’t mean it, even if they think they do, and where the older duos would have imbued the song with a dignified pathos, the Everlys sound relieved to be rid of the pressures of a relationship and ready to start playing the field again.

Slim Harpo “(I’m A) King Bee”
(Slim Harpo)
Excello, 1957
Say, whaddya know? There’s Slim Harpo. (Quick, name the next line.) He wanted to call himself Lightning Slim, but someone else already had the name, so his wife suggested Harpo. Because he played the harmonica, goes the official version; but also, one suspects, because of the silent Marx brother’s famous randiness. This, his biggest and most influential hit, is nothing more than an extended metaphor for sex. So are two-thirds of all blues songs, of course, but few of them as direct and unsubtle as this one ever made it as big. Slim’s minimal funkiness and leering voice proved hugely influential on a young London art-school student named Michael P. Jagger, who even took up the harmonica in imitation (but didn’t play it nearly as well).

Sam Cooke “You Send Me”
(Sam Cooke)
Keen, 1957
Ah, here it is: the time bomb that shook the foundations of pop music and left them forever changed. Not that it’s easy to tell from today’s perspective, especially if you’re not already soaked in the music of the period. And it’s not necessarily the song itself that made such an impact, though it’s got all the pop necessities: irresistably hummable melody, (slow-) danceable rhythm, compactly novel lyrical idea. (“What? Where does she send him?” “No, daddyo, you’re not digging it.”) It’s the voice. Gritty, yet smooth, slipping under notes and swallowing them up, weaving and bobbing like a young Cassius Clay. It’s not to much to say that, aside from the odd Josh Groban or so, there hasn’t been a popular male singer for thirty years whose vocal style didn’t owe something to Sam Cooke.

Dale Hawkins “Susie Q”
(Dale Hawkins/Eleanor Broadwater/Stan Lewis)
Checker, 1957
At an academic pop-music conference four years ago, there was a paper read called “The Cowbell As Universal Party-Down Signifier.” Blue Öyster Cult, one imagines, featured prominently (no doubt with a passing reference to a Will Ferrell sketch). But I hope space was left for Dale Hawkins. Another rockabilly artist defined by a single hit, Hawkins might better be described as the original swamp-rocker: a Louisiana boy with a huge drum sound and his buddy James Burton on electric guitar, he’s pretty much single-handedly responsible for Creedence Clearwater Revival (who at least had the decency to acknowledge it; a nine-minute version of “Susie Q” is on their debut album). The song has origins in 1930s dance-jazz; Louis Armstrong’s sometime wife Lil Hardin was the first to record a version.

Huey “Piano” Smith & The Clowns “Don’t You Just Know It”
(Huey Smith/Johnny Vincent)
Ace, 1958
I’m not usually the kind of person who sings out loud at random, but every now and then this nonsense chorus just pops out. “Ha ha ha ha (Ha ha ha ha)/Heyyy-yo (Heyyy-yo)/Booga booga booga booga (Booga booga booga booga/Ah ah ah ah (Ah ah ah ah)” and so forth. It’s one of the greatest call-and-response themes of all time, rivalling Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” and it turned Huey Smith into yet another New Orleans r&b legend. Not as genially cool as Fats Domino or as relentlessly funky as Professor Longhair, Smith carved out a party-hearty niche that relied on the traded vocals of his backup group the Clowns (presaging a certain Family Stone) and was ultimately responsible for the spread of those heppest of diseases, the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu.

The Collins Kids “Hoy Hoy”
(Little Johnny Jones)
Columbia, 1958
Look at that picture. Just look at it. What is that kid, ten? And his demure older sister, she’s what, sixteen? How on earth do those little squirts produce such an ungodly racket? Proof positive that rock & roll was a much a generational shift as a cultural one — it’s like it was encoded in their genes or something — Larry and Lonnie Collins (they both sang, but he played the solos) were one of the firiest, fastest, jumpingest rockabilly acts on the planet for a good while. Oddly enough, their tender years, instead of being scandalous, made rock & roll “safe” for both the country crowd and the TV-watching public for whom Lonnie was Ricky Nelson’s girlfriend. But give a listen to this: if it’s not statutory something, I’ll eat my hat. (Note: I don’t own a hat.)

Esquerita “Rockin’ The Joint”
(Eskew Reeder, Jr.)
Capitol, 1958
Capitol wanted their own Little Richard, but better ( just as Gene Vincent was their own Elvis, but better), so they signed Esquerita. His hair was even bigger than Little Richard’s, his mouth even wider, his songs even more furiously-rocking and lascivous, his stage manner even more flamboyant, his sexuality even gayer, his sales — well, no. His sales tanked hard, and he was quickly forgotten as a camp novelty, except among die-hard rock & roll collectors. (You can’t see sexual orientation on a 45.) But see, here’s the thing — Little Richard stole his act at the beginning of his own career. Well, maybe not stole exactly, but cleaned up and refined and presented as his own. Rock & roll ain’t just white pretending to be black, kids. It’s also straight pretending to be gay.

Wynn Stewart “Come On”
(Wynn Stewart)
Jackpot, 1958
Mainstream country is the least forgiving genre: even major hitmakers are quickly forgotten if they don’t continue to top the charts for over a decade. Wynn Stewart was one of the greatest country singers and songwriters of the 1950s, on par with Ray Price or Hank Thompson, and he was one of the first Bakersfield artists — in fact, Buck Owens could be said to owe him his entire career. But apart from a heaven-tinged ballad or two, he’s been almost entirely written out of the music’s history. This song, one of his best, is a rockabilly-inflected jump tune, a slightly salacious ditty (though nothing compared to even the RCA-tamed Elvis) that strikes a happy medium between Buck Owens and Buddy Holly. And the wordless vocal whine that opens the song and repeats throughout reminds me of the brazen murmuring Ella Mae Morse used to open her funkiest jive tunes.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

100 Great Rock & Roll Songs Of The 1950s, Part VII.

Ray Charles “Hallelujah I Love Her So”
(Ray Charles)
Atlantic, 1957
All the traditional historians of rock & roll will tell you that Ray Charles, along with Sam Cooke, more or less invented soul singing. (They downplay James Brown’s contribution because they’re saving him for funk.) Charles’ gospel-inflected, highly emotional singing is certainly fundamental in the development of soul, but anyone raised on Stax tightness or Motown sheen will be surprised by his early sides: they’re big-band numbers, only a half-step away from Count Basie or Buddy Rich. People talk about Ray Charles creating something entirely new, but those people have never heard Joe Williams fronting the Basie Orchestra — which is not to knock Ray Charles; being the bridge from jazz into soul is worth mountains of respect. Anyway. This song was chosen because I’m a sucker for the “I hear her (tok tok tok tok) on my door” line. Gimmicky? Maybe, but it’s also a line straight outta Louis Jordan’s jump blues, and one that would find echoes in rockabilly . . . and the Great Hodgepodge that is American music rocks on.

Don & Dewey “Leavin’ It All Up To You”
(Don Harris/Dewey Terry)
Specialty, 1957
Never heard of ’em? Okay, imagine if the Everly Brothers had been composed of Little Richard and Chuck Berry. And then had no success whatever. Their most-anthologized songs are awe-inspiring in their primitive thrash (seek out “Justine” for an example of early black punk rock), but they were also capable of playing it relatively straight, as on this r&b ballad in country time. Key word: relatively. Either Don or Dewey (I can’t really tell the difference) can’t resist the temptation to throw a little curveball into his voice, a juke-joint raggedness that would prevent the song from making it big even on the r&b charts. But as “I’m Leaving It All Up To You,” it went on to become a minor standard in the 60s, with recordings by Freddy Fender, Tom Jones, the Osmonds, and (most chartingly) the equally-forgotten swamp-pop duo Dale & Grace.

Fats Domino “I’m Walkin’”
(Fats Domino/Dave Bartholomew)
Imperial, 1957
I can’t have been the only person, as a callow youth investigating for the first time the roots of this thing called rock & roll, who heard one or two Fats Domino songs and was like, “what the hell? That’s not rock & roll!” It was too mellow, too easygoing, too cheerful for someone whose idea of rock had been defined by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Cut to today, when the news story of airlifting the man out of his house in New Orleans can bring a tear to my eye. He is the Big Man, the greatest and most beloved exponent of Crescent City r&b, a man whose hits worked equally well as a late-period comeback for Louis Armstrong (“Blueberry Hill”) or as one of the focal points for the genesis of ska (“Be My Guest”). This song is as mellow, easygoing, and cheerful as ever, but its hepped-up gospel shuffle makes it easier for the three-chords-and-the-truth crowd to swallow as rock & roll.

Richard Berry & The Pharaohs “Louie, Louie”
(Richard Berry)
Flip, 1957
Do you realize that there are still people out there who think that the words to this song are unknowable? Or who even think that the Kingsmen get away with swearing every day on oldies radio? One listen to the original shows the canard for what it is: the Kingsmen were just repeating Richard Berry word-for-word, and it’s a just silly little love song, as the Cute One would put it. He wasn’t any relation to Chuck Berry, but this song, oddly enough, is: it’s based on “Havana Moon,” Chuck’s legendary sojourn into Latin-tinged balladry. But Richard, who was a journeyman creative person in the Los Angeles r&b world (he sang, uncredited, on massive hits by Etta James and the Robins), had the pop sense to pick up the tempo a bit and give it a bit of a (noveltyish) stomp. It didn’t work — it was charitable to call it even a regional hit. Then, six years later, some zero-grade garage band out of the Pacific Northwest got hold of it, and rock & roll legend was born.

George Jones “If I Don’t Love You (Grits Ain’t Groceries)”
(George Jones/J. P. Richardson)
Starday, 1957
George Jones is, on the slight off-chance you don’t already know, probably the greatest country vocalist of all time. The depth and sonorous majesty of his voice gave him an extraordinary run of heartbreak ballads from the late 60s through the early 80s, but he began as a rockabilly-inflected honky-tonker in the 1950s. His most famous song from that era is probably the corny “White Lightning,” but unlike Roy Orbison, he didn’t just have the one decent song before he found himself: as witness this fiddle-based stomp. Aside from the memorable title phrase and a certain rhythm in the lyrics, this song has nothing in common with Little Milton’s 1969 soul-blues hit “Grits Ain’t Groceries,” but it’s a great example of the Possum’s early work: upbeat, cheeky, and already with such assured command of his vocal technique that he can slip into regular speech at the end of a verse without throwing the rhythm of the song off.

Larry Williams “Short Fat Fannie”
(Larry Williams)
Specialty, 1957
“Short Fat Fannie is on the loose!” Mick Jagger howls at one point during the epic American-roots record Exile On Main St (the Rolling Stones remain the only acceptable British substitute for the homegrown brand, in my estimation). Which is even more of a deeply-layered reference than you might think: sure, he’s referring to Larry Williams’ funky r&b hit, but that song itself was a catalog of other rock & roll hits, with lyrical references to songs by Little Richard (four times), Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, Elvis Presley, Little Willie John, Big Mama Thornton, Carl Perkins, Buddy Knox, LaVern Baker (twice), and Fats Domino. And the whistling that opens the song could be taken as a nod to Professor Longhair. Williams was (perhaps inevitably) another graduate of the New Orleans school of rock & roll, and had been groomed by his label to be the next Little Richard. He was too oddball for that; but he did manage his own little corner of rock & roll immortality.

Warren Smith “Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache”
(Lilly May/Hayden Thompson)
Sun, 1957
Why should I lie? This song was the impetus for this list. If you don’t know it, you need to know it. Period. I first heard it sung by Bob Dylan, on a 2001 tribute to Sun Records. Old Bobby knew what he was doing when he picked it, too: it’s a rockabilly ballad, an easy shuffle of a type that wouldn’t really gain favor in the popular imagination until the heyday of country-rock more than a decade later. It’s loosely based on bluesman Bill Gaither’s 1936 “Who’s Been Here Since I Been Gone,” but with updated honky-tonk references, including the red Cadillac of the title. It’s oddly structured for rock & roll, too: instead of verses, a chorus, and a middle eight, it just has an A part and a B part, the favored form of the classic Broadway composers. It wasn’t terribly successful — Smith’s more noveltyish “Ubangi Stomp” was a bigger hit with the sock-hoppers — but its easy electric strum and sharp eye for detail has easily outlasted the decades.

The Chantels “Maybe”
(Arlene Smith)
End, 1957
And the great drama-queen tradition of pop begins, continued in Ronnie Spector, Lulu, the Shangri-Las, Cher, and so forth, on to the Christina Aguileras and Beyoncé Knowleses of today. The girl-group mythology of eccentric producers and Brill Building songwriters is so entrenched in rock-history consciousness that the Chantels are too often overlooked. Not only were they just about the first black girl group to have any notable success, they were classically-trained vocalists, as comfortable with Gregorian chant as with doo-wop conventions, and their lead singer, Arlene Smith, wrote their songs. You can hear her familiarity with diva posturing in her soaring, emotional voice, and the odd acoustics of the song are due to its being recorded not in a studio, but inside a church. Their second single, it soared up the charts and changed the face of pop music for the next decade. They had only been recording for a year; the oldest of them was seventeen.

G. L. Crockett “Look Out Mabel”
(G. L. Crockett/Mel London)
Checker, 1957
One of the great mystery men of rock music, Crockett left behind only three singles and a single blurry photo, which shows a sleepy-eyed fat man with a pompadour. Oh, and he’s black. Which wouldn’t be odd, except this is a rockabilly song. And not in any “if you squint you can kind of hear it” sense, either: it’s straight-up guitar rock, based more in country than in blues, with a honky-tonk piano player Jerry Lee Lewising away in the background. To deepen the weirdness: it was recorded for the Chess label, which (famously) was the home of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, et cetera. Oh yeah, and that’s Earl Hooker playing guitar. Hooker (I used a picture of him instead) was one of the all-time great blues guitarists, with a wiry, snapping sound that used feedback and scraping along the strings just as much as power chords and vibrato; his double-necked guitar and his reluctance to sing on record are both stuff of legend; this forgotten song deserves to be just as legendary.

Mickey & Sylvia “Love Is Strange”
(Mickey Baker/Sylvia Robinson/Ethel Smith)
Groove, 1957
And now we turn to a song which was just as progressive and startling, guitar-wise, but which hasn’t been forgotten in the least (thanks, Dirty Dancing). Mickey Baker was one of the great studio guitarists of the rock & roll era, and his rhumba-inflected duet with sweet-voiced siren Sylvia Robinson was as much of a showcase for his sharp-toned finger-flashing as for her sultry “come here, lover boy!” The dexterity with which he switches between playing barres around the rhythm and running his sparkling solo work remain postively breathtaking today. Or if you don’t care for that guitar-hero crap, it’s still got several great pop moments thanks to Sylvia’s multifarious vocal talents and that slinky, sensuous Caribbean rhythm. Even reggae has roots in rock & roll.

Friday, May 11, 2007

100 Great Rock & Roll Songs Of The 1950s, Part VI.

Little Richard “Long Tall Sally”
(Richard Wayne Penniman/Robert Blackwell/Enotris Johnson)
Specialty, 1956
“I’m a teacher too. I taught Paul McCartney to go woooo!” is probably the best line a guest voice on The Simpsons has ever had. But Little Richard is far more than just the black guy Sir Paul stole his rock & roll vocal style from — he’s one of the great lyricists of early rock & roll, with a cast of bizarre, seedy characters whose lives seem to revolve around partying and sex. Long Tall Sally (aka Bald-Headed Sally in a verse) is one of those dazzling creations, a rock & roll queen who can hold her own with Lucille (you don’t do your mama’s will), Rudy (the Tutti Frutti girl), and Miss Molly. And Little Richard’s original howling, piano-pounding persona (he’s had several since, like Prince) makes him just about the only real person who could go toe-to-toe with his fictional creations and sing about it later.

Ray Price & The Cherokee Cowboys “Crazy Arms”
(Ralph Mooney/Chuck Seals)
Columbia, 1956
One of the mainstays of country music for the better part of a century (his career began in the 1940s, and as of this writing he’s touring with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson), Ray Price is also one of its stealth geniuses, a man who subtly opened up the parameters of country, allowing for both greater sophistication and a tougher, more rhythmic sensibility. “Crazy Arms” is where his characteristic 4/4 shuffle, as typified by the prominent walking bassline, was perfected: it’s a rock & roll backbeat, but with a pure honky-tonk soul. He would later incorporate jazz and even blues into his remarkably pure country style, and it was his credentials that gave a bunch of hippies in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band their free pass to the hardcore country audience.

The Five Satins “In The Still Of The Night”
(Fred Paris)
Standard, 1956
One of the perennial, um, standards of the rock & roll era, “In The Still Of The Night” could have been written in the 1930s, or the 1890s, or the 1990s. But the gently rolling rhythm, the pop-soul arrangement, and the “shoo-doop, shoo-be-doo” that have become inseparable from the song could only have come from the 1950s — maybe even only from 1956. Doo wop would get more energetic as the decade went on, until it became something else entirely with the Drifters and Temptations. But for that magic year, it flourished as the only possible ballad form that could unite both teenagers and parents in a haze of fond romanticism.

Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps “Race With The Devil”
(Gene Vincent/Tex Davis)
Capitol, 1956
This is hot-rod music, an urban rockabilly with so much deep, flanged echo on Vincent’s voice that it becomes another rhythmic element. The lyrics present a B-movie yarn about a drag race with the Father of Lies, except that you take it as seriously as Robert Johnson because the dark, needly music is so convincing. Gene Vincent was a confirmed turbomaniac; his famous stiff-legged dance moves were (equally famously) due to a motorcycle accident before he turned to rock & roll. And his most famous song, “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” is notable mostly for giving square adults the absurd idea that rock & roll had anything at all to do with bebop.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put A Spell On You”
(Jalacy Hawkins)
Okeh, 1956
He coulda been a contender. An operatic contender, that is: one of the stories told about Jay Hawkins in the long slow years of being swallowed up by pop-culture oblivion is that he never intended to be a rock & roller, much less the voodoo-camp icon that brought him immortality; he wanted to be an art singer, like Paul Robeson, like Enrico Caruso. That’s the story, anyway. He had the voice for it, if not the training: in between the gibbers and snorts you can hear a back-of-the-room resonance which was played for horrorshow laughs on his noveltyish singles. Which, by the way, didn’t bring him fame and fortune either; the song was forgotten until Nina Simone dusted it off and introduced it to a generation of rock & rollers in the 1960s. Screamin’ Jay didn’t even salvage the fake skull scepter.

Dave Bartholomew “The Monkey”
(Dave Bartholomew/Pearl King)
Imperial, 1957
For all of Elvis Costello’s faults (the way his grasp exceeds his reach, the clever-dickness of his lyrics, the “highly mannered” way he sings), he’s probably introduced more music nerds to great forgotten music of previous generations than anyone this side of Dave Godin. Take this song. Dave Bartholomew’s minimal jive track, with its socially-conscious proto-rapping (even the guitar line, repeated endlessly, mesmerizingly, seems to presage the way samples would later be used to structure a track rhythmically), would only have been known to die-hard New Orleans junkies if Costello hadn’t recorded an answer song on The Delivery Man — and made sure every reviewer reported on the existence of the original. Bartholomew is one of the giants of New Orleans r&b, a producer, songwriter and trumpeter who (among other things) first brought Fats Domino into the spotlight. Allen Toussaint inherited his mantle in the 60s, and the Big Easy rolled on.

Bo Diddley “Who Do You Love”
(Ellas McDaniel)
Chess, 1957
It’s not the many, many cover versions — each one more overblown and self-indulgent than the last until, in 1968, Quicksilver Messenger Service devoted almost an entire LP to the song — that makes this my Bo Diddley song of choice. Those goddamn hippies even got the rhythm wrong, reverting to the clichéd “shave and a haircut, two bits” just because Bo Diddley had used it once or twice on his earlier songs. No, no — it’s the lyrics. A necktie made out of rattlesnake hide, a house of human skulls; Rob Zombie wishes he could be this freaky. And it’s okay, yeah, Diddley’s primitive stomp, which has been both overhyped and understimated. (He was in touch with the ancient African jungle roots of rock & roll!/He was a one-note showman, not a real bluesman at all! No, you idiots, he was just a great rock & roller.) His one-chord cigar-box guitar swipes and his booming baritone complete the picture: Bo Diddley is one bad motherfucker, and he better be who you love, ’cause otherwise he be adding a new skull to his house.

Ivory Joe Hunter “Since I Met You Baby”
(Joe Hunter)
Atlantic, 1957
His name actually was Ivory Joe, since the day of his christening: of course he had to be a piano player. He worked with Charles Brown at the beginning of both their careers, and his softly swinging nightclub blues style, an easy pill for the adult-pop market to swallow, was similar to Brown’s. But he also crossed over to the country/western market (years before a certain Genius did so), and you can hear a country phrasing in his voice on this remarkably gentle, yearning pop hit. There are strings, and white-pop background singers going “ahh,” and lush Glenn Miller-inspired charts, but it’s (astonishingly) not treacle: both Hunter’s trickling piano runs and a strong foundation in blues changes and meter keeps it firmly on the right side of sentimental. And that slow, sensual sax solo. There aren’t many blues songs that celebrate the joy of newfound love; what made Ivory Joe great was his ability to reconcile those seeming incompatibilities.

The 5 Royales “Think”
(Lowman Pauling)
King, 1957
The asses at Wikipedia write it up as a James Brown song, with a bare mention that it was written by a member of the “5” Royales (no, I don’t know what’s up with the quote marks). But have you heard the James Brown version? It’s markedly inferior to the original, with its sliding, stinging guitar weaving in and out of the lyrics like Steve Cropper on a really good day. Without that guitar performing a subtle commentary on the self-righteous lyrics, the song seems only half-complete. (And Brown — I hate to admit — oversings it.) Yet another example of doo wop being more than teenage street-corner nonsense: these guys were as bluesy and rock & roll as anyone, but because they sang in harmony, they get relegated to the doo wop ghetto alongside glib pop groups like the Platters and the Del-Vikings. Life isn’t fair.

Buddy Holly & The Crickets “Peggy Sue”
(Buddy Holly/Jerry Allison/Norman Petty)
Coral, 1957
I didn’t want to include this song. It’s already been praised and discussed and canonized enough; I wanted to dig deeper into the Holly catalog, maybe “Oh Boy” or “Not Fade Away” or “Rave On” or “Maybe Baby” or — but then I listened to this again, just to give it a fair chance, and hell. It’s the pinnacle of 1950s pop, with those endless multitracked drum fills (the origin of Keith Moon), Holly’s perfectly chirpy, nerdy delivery, the rough edges of rockabilly smoothed out and given new texture in the studio process (the origin of Brian Wilson and George Martin), and then, suddenly, two-thirds of the way into a song where there hasn’t been any electric guitar, an electric guitar solo that’s not really a solo at all, just tejano chords chopped back and forth like he’s in a primitive garage band (the origins of the Beatles, the Kingsmen, and thousands more). It’s the intellectualization of rock & roll, it’s canny studio enginners capturing lightning in a bottle — it’s art rock. And it’s a three-minute pop single heard round the world. There were giants in those days.