March 28 – Album Would ‘Duke’ It Out For Top Of Charts

Somewhere between being one of the biggest but most avant garde (and perhaps a bit pompous) art rock bands of the ’70s and one of the world’s most popular straight-ahead radio-oriented pop bands of the ’80s, Genesis straddled the decades with something a little in between. Duke, their tenth studio album, came out this day in 1980. In their British homeland at least, it’d been released to American markets earlier in that week 40 years ago. While all remnants of their artsy, prog rock passed weren’t entirely erased, it certainly pointed to the direction they would take in the new decade.

Genesis had begun and spent the first half of the ’70s as a quintet, largely under the control of quirky Peter Gabriel. He left the band mid-decade, followed by a guitarist named Steve Hackett, leaving a trio with the balance of power shifting towards drummer (and suddenly singer) Phil Collins. We heard a bit of what that would entail with And Then There Were Three, Duke stepped it up a bit more.

It had been a busy time for the band. It was only two years (to the day in the UK) between albums, and they’d capitalized on their newfound appeal, largely from the single “Follow You, Follow Me” , to tour the world and increase their profile substantially. This however, wasn’t good for home lives and Phil Collins marriage was on the rocks. He put the band on hiatus for a bit in ’79 as he moved to Canada temporarily to try and salvage that relationship, unsuccessfully as it turned out. The divorce that ensued ended up giving him albums worth of material as it turned out. In the downtime, all three were writing music and both Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks (who turned 70 yesterday – belated happy one to him!) would both put out solo records around the same time as Duke; Collins himself wrote a number of tunes that became his first solo, Face Value during the time as well. Surprisingly, what is now seen as his signature song, “In the Air Tonight”, was written for the band and could’ve ended up on this album, but they weren’t keen on it so it was shelved until he put out his own record. That was a bit of an “oops!” but it didn’t really harm the fortunes of Genesis.

When they reconvened at the end of ’79, they each had some songs written and they decided to put some collaborative efforts on the album (including the first single, “Turn it on Again” and “Behind the Lines”) as well as a couple of songs written by each of the individual members. One of Collins’ contributions was the big hit off it, “Misunderstanding.”

They recorded it in Sweden, with the help of producer David Hentschel, whom they’d worked with regularly before. He’d come to prominence in the music world being a studio engineer and playing synthesizer for Elton John on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Sweden was new for them, but not the idea of recording on “the continent”; they’d made their last couple of studio records in the Netherlands and most of their previous live one in France. By all reports they quite enjoyed the process and found it one of their easiest records to make.

There were little nods to the band’s early days, like the 10 minute piece “Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End” which ends the record, and a loose – very loose – concept to the album about a guy called “Albert” who went by the nickname “Duke”, for the most part it was a solid collection of relatively smart, catchy pop tunes.

That might have been a change for the fans, but evidently it was a good one… and the number of fans increased as well. It became the first #1 album for them at home and in Canada as well and in the U.S. it got to #11, likewise their best showing to date. The first single, “Turn it on Again” made it to #8 in the UK and Italy, and deserved a bit better fate over here where it just missed the top 40. However, “Misunderstanding” (which probably set the template for Collins’ work of the following five years) scored them their first American top 20 hit and zoomed to #1 in Canada, while flopping in their homeland.

Critics by and large saw the “new” Genesis as an enjoyable, possibly “new and improved” one. Smash Hits in the UK gave it a so-so 6 out of 10 but Sounds there rated it 4-star, saying Collins sounded “more convincing” than before and that “no Genesis fan could be disappointed.” Rolling Stone found it to have a “refreshing urgency” and singled out “Turn it on Again” as “vibrant rock and roll.” Years later, allmusic gave it 4-stars and called it a “major leap forward” for the band and when they “leaped into the fray” of being pop stars.

Busy ones too. Each member worked on at least three albums (between the band and solo) in the 1979-81 period.

March 28 – Debbie Did It First…And Best?

On this day 39 years back, alternative rock took another alternative music form and made it mainstream. On this day in 1981 the first ever U.S. #1 hit to have rapping on it topped the chart…”Rapture” by Blondie. I’m not sure if we should be apologizing to the hip-hop nation for this or to the rest of if the New York new wavers should be for having introduced “rap” to the wider audience.

Blondie was a part of the New York music scene since 1974 and were, along with the Ramones and Television, regulars at CBGB in the early days of the punk scene but had become a major worldwide success by the time they released their fifth album, Autoamerican. Debbie Harry and company came to international attention with “Heart of Glass” in 1979 and the following year had the #1 single of the year in the U.S. and another international smash, with “Call Me”.

The safe and perhaps “smart” thing for the band to have done was record what people had come to expect from them, a sound that was variously called at the time “punk” , “post-punk” or “new wave”. They could have put out an album of danceable, fast, slightly-edgy tunes with crunchy guitars. Instead they put out a record with a variety of sounds…but little conventional rock or songs that reminded people of “Heart of Glass” or “One Way or Another.” Autoamerican had covers of old Broadway tunes, a Caribbean-flavored slow dance number (“The Tide is High”) … and “Rapture”. The departure for new musical territory wasn’t universally-applauded.

William Ruhlman of allmusic gave the release 3 stars out of 5 noting that Blondie was trying to “expand their stylistic range” but deciding that all in all, it was “memorable only for its hits”. Rolling Stone was decidedly more critical. In a review that has sort of a cult status online, Tom Carson (who evidently really didn’t like Harry’s musical and romantic partner, Chris Stein) begrudgingly gave it one star and called it “a terrible record” in the first line! Continue reading “March 28 – Debbie Did It First…And Best?”

March 27 – Single Sold Millions & That’s No Bull…Frog

Today, one of many stories of a band having a smash hit that they didn’t think much of. Three Dog Night hit the top 40 this day in 1971 with the biggest single of the year in North America, “Joy To The World”.

The band was at that point one of the biggest around, with their first three albums all going gold in the U.S. and with a #1 song the year before, with the Randy Newman tune “Mama told Me Not to Come.” 

Hoyt Axton, a country artist, had written “Joy to the World” for an animated TV show, which never ended up being made. A successful songwriter, he decided to get it recorded anyway and presented it to the California band. They didn’t like it much, but they needed another song to quickly finish up their Naturally album and Chuck Negron (one of the band’s singers) thought they could use a “silly song”, although years later he’d admit it “Wasn’t even close to our best record.” Axton (who also wrote “The Pusher” for Steppenwolf, and later “Never Been To Spain”, another hit for Three Dog Night). He didn’t think the classic opening line “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” was great either, he said it was a temporary lyric he wanted to re-write but they just went ahead and recorded it before he could. The song, which some figured was about the prophet Jeremiah and others just thought was a song about a talking and drinking frog ended up staying at #1 for six weeks, going gold in the U.S. and selling over 1 million copies in Canada, making it one of the biggest 45s of all-time there.

Three Dog Night seemed to have a particularly strong following there, landing 13-straight top 10 hits just between 1969-73. This one though, almost didn’t make that list. Their label picked “”One Man Band” as the first single from Naturally. “Joy to the World” probably wouldn’t have ever been noticed much, let alone released as a single, were it not for just one DJ. As we mentioned recently when discussing “Blackwater,”DJs back then had a lot of power over what they played. For Three Dog Night, their hero was Larry Bergman, a Seattle radio jock. “I was working at KISW-FM at the time,” he recalls, “that was when AMs were more popular than FMs.” The FM station had an AM twin, and the difference was in tracks they played. “My job was to select odd cuts from albums by popular artists…for on-air use.” He picked that one from Naturally and as soon as it was on air, the phones started ringing at the station. An AM radio DJ noticed and started playing it too and within a short period, it was the #1 song in Seattle. The rest of the continent wasn’t too far behind, although it only rose to #24 in the UK where they weren’t ever a big deal.

The band continues to this day, although they’ve gone through 29 band members through the years and haven’t done much recording lately. No word on whether they still have the person dressed up as a giant frog as a mascot as they did back then.

March 27 – Don’t Be Insensitive, Wish Jann A Happy Birthday

We’ve discussed some of the big Canadian, female artists of the ’90s lately – Alanis Morissette and Alannah Myles for instance – today we wish happy birthday to yet another. Jann Arden turns 58 today.

Outside of Canada, Jann is probably barely remembered as a One Hit Wonder of the ’90s. In her land of maple and Molsons though, she’s quite a big deal.

She was born in Calgary and raised in other areas of Alberta and … well, not much is written online about her first thirty years or so. She came into the music world as a recording artist late (by most standards), putting out her first album in 1993, at age 31. she’s put out 11 more studio albums since then not to mention several live and compilation ones.

While her debut did fine in Canada, it was her second album, 1994’s Living Under June that put her on the music map. It was that one which provided her biggest hit, the hurting “Insensitive”, a major adult contemporary hit in many lands, and one which made the top 40 in the UK and all the way up to #12 in the U.S. In Canada, it was a #1 hit and helped push the album up to 5X platinum level (and even gold in the States.) That was by far her biggest-seller, but at home, she’s tallied 11 gold or platinum albums, and 11-straight which have made the top 10, thanks to both her personality and nine top 10 singles, including “Could I Be Your Girl?” from Living Under June and “The Sound Of” off her follow-up, ’97’s Happy? Her song “Run Like Mad” was the original theme for the TV show Dawsons Creek as well. Little wonder she’s being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame this year, then.

Many of her songs reflect a sense of humor coupled with a bit of self-doubt and dash of self-deprecation. In short, a relatively normal, “girl next door” type persona, which carries over into her everyday life. She’s guest-hosted talk shows in Canada, written several books (including two about dealing with her parents who both had Alzheimer’s in late life) and appeared in cameos on several Canadian sitcoms including Corner Gas. In 2018, she starred in a CTV sitcom called Jann, which was loosely based on her own life.

Her singing and songwriting, coupled with her charitable work (including performing benefits for AIDS charities and World Vision) had Jann named to the Order of Canada recently.

It could be a busy year for Jann. Her sitcom is apparently an ongoing, albeit limited, series, she just put out another “best of” compilation including the new track “Everybody’s Always Pulling On Me” and she’s scheduled a large tour of Canada, hitting every province, later this spring…God and corona virus willing!

March 26 – Virus-free, The ’80s Were Golden Age…

1982 might have been the Golden Age of Synthesizer Music, but on this day 38 years back, Thomas Dolby invited us back to The Golden Age of Wireless, his first individual release. By that point, the then-23 year old had already sung backup for Bruce Woolley (one of The Buggles), worked with Robyn Hitchcock and written songs for Lene Lovich (like “New Toy”). And his work had been heard – albeit fairly anonymously – on a smash single from a #1 album. Dolby played keyboards for Foreigner on their multi-platinum album 4, most notably on the song “Waiting For A Girl Like You.” That anonymity ws heightened by him apparently not being the one “playing” the keyboards in the video for it. 

His solo effort resembled The Buggles more than Foreigner, which was no surprise given that he was British and had begun his musical career by building his own synthesizers years before. The Golden Age of Wireless was definitely a product of the ’80s… but that’s not a bad thing! It was heavy on synthesizers and other electric keyboards, but unlike some of his contemporaries, was also full of melodies and interesting lyrics. As allmusic would put it later on, he sounded rather like a “friendlier, peppier flipside of Gary Numan.” While Dolby wrote the music and sang it, as well as playing a load of keyboards on it, he wasn’t alone in the studio. Tim Friese-Greene of Talk Talk helped him produce it, and among the rather extraordinary 24 other musicians credited were Andy Partridge of XTC, Woolley, Lovich and even Foreigner 4 producer Mutt Lange, who sang some backing vocals.

In Europe, the first single off it was “Europa and the Pirate Twins”, a catchy number but not a major hit; the more ephereal “Windpower” from it just missed the British top 30. And The Golden Age… included several other great tracks that are standouts from his career like “Radio Silence”, and probably “One of Our Submarines.” Probably?

Unlike say, Dark Side of the Moon (or most other albums for that matter), The Golden Age of Wireless is an almost loose, blanket-term for several records. Dolby had a few more songs kicking around than would fit the length of a typical LP and he was signed to different record labels in different territories (the small Venice In Peril in his UK, CBS in the States and Harvest, a division of Capitol, in Canada for example) they tended to issue it in slightly different configurations. Then, things took off for Thomas around the end of the year, when he issued another single – the one that would define his career.“She Blinded Me With Science” is one of the most iconic, fun singles of the decade, albeit not necessarily characteristic of most of his work. That song hit #5 in the U.S. and was a #1 hit in Canada (surprisingly, it didn’t do much in his own country). That in turn got his record labels wanting to re-push the album, adding in “…Science”, often at the expense of the song “Urges” which was dropped from some editions. There’ve been at very least 7 different versions of the album thus far, that may actually be a low estimate.

Regardless of exactly which format it came in, the album was a breakthrough hit. It made it to #13 in the U.S. and #8 in Canada, where it went gold…. and that came a few weeks after an album called She Blinded Me With Science got to #3 there. That album was more or less the same but with a different title…perhaps you’d have to be a computer scientist capable of making your own equipment to keep track of all the different, but the same, Dolby releases back then!

It was different, but the early-’80s were all about finding something different musically. The public liked Dolby and the record, and more surprisingly, critics generally did too. Rolling Stone, not one to often laud Brit rock, nor synthesizer music, rated it 4-stars calling it “one of the most impressive debuts so far this year” and comparing him to David Bowie. They add “unlike many synthesizer bands from England, Dolby eschews morbid, droogy drones.” Sentiments echoed decades later by allmusic which call him a “pop adventurer” and consider this album to be the best of his five studio ones, considering it “an intriguing and very often entertaining curio from the glory days of synth rock.”

Dolby had minor success with his next album and the single “Hyperactive” from it and has recorded periodically since then, and followed in his science-loving dad’s footsteps, becoming a university lecturer as well.

March 26 – Song Helped Make Duo Rich Boys

Not much good comes out of a gunfight in a nightclub…but one odd exception to that rule might be Billboard‘s “most successful duo of the rock era”: Daryl Hall & John Oates (and it should be noted that they always preferred that designation as opposed to “Hall And Oates”.) The Philadelphia kings of “blue-eyed soul” met at a 1967 concert when they ended up in the same elevator trying to get away from a gun battle!

They found they both went to Temple University and enjoyed much the same music. They formed their own band in 1970, initially had little success (although Tavares did have an R&B hit with their version of Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone”) until a Minneapolis station started spinning their version of “She’s Gone” incessantly and soon had it to #33 nationwide.

On this day in 1977, the pair had their first #1 hit, “Rich Girl” which was in fact about a rich boy! Daryl Hall said he wrote it about a rich and spoiled ex of his then girlfriend, Sara.(Yes, the same Sara he wrote “Sara Smile” about.) The heir to a chain of fast food places acted foolishly and said his dad would pay for any damage he did; Hall simply changed the song to about a woman since he wouldn’t feel comfortable singing about a “rich boy” and doubted it would find as good a reception anyway.

The pair have since had five more chart-topping singles in the U.S. including “Kiss on My List” and “Out of Touch.”

March 25 – Silly? Millions Of People Disagreed

You can let critics get to you and try to adjust to their criticisms. Or you can just have a bit of fun with them and dig in. Paul McCartney decided to opt for the latter with his Wings release Wings At the Speed Of Sound, released this day in 1976.

For three or four years, many critics had complained that McCartney was only writing love songs which were light-weight and bits of fluff, and that his “band” Wings was really not a bad at all but just a vehicle for his own self-indulgent ideas. So for his sixth post-Beatles album (of which, it was the third labeled “Wings”, with two being “Paul McCartney And Wings” and one just being “Paul McCartney” ) he decided to make this an absolute band effort. And write the most lightweight love songs yet.

He and the band recorded it at Abbey Road Studios, like so many of his great recordings before. However, this time around there was no John, George or Ringo around him, nor a George Martin producing. Nevertheless, Wings were no slouches (particularly ex-Moody Blue Denny Laine) and by the Bicentennial year, Paul had learned a thing or two about working the soundboards and he produced the record by himself.

To make sure people got the message that Wings was a band, not just a fictitious entity in McC’s imagination, he let each of the other members sing at least one of the song and take part in writing some of the tunes. Laine wrote and did lead vocals on “Time to Hide” and sang “The Note You Never Wrote”. drummer Joe English took the mic for “Must Do Something About It”, Jimmy McCulloch added “Wino Junko” and Paul’s wife Linda wrote and sang (theoretically the lead) the ode to the joys of domestic duties, “Cook of the House.”

Adding to the band effect was the fact that not only did Linda play keyboards, McCulloch and Laine both played bass and guitars on various tracks. Still, it was Paul who led the way, playing bass of course, but also guitars on some songs, piano on others and singing the majority of the songs on the 46-minute work. that included the two hit singles, “Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs”.

Of course critics loved to hate both. “Let ’em In” was probably the silliest, most meaningless song he’d done since “Uncle Albert”… I mean, the whole song revolves around someone knocking on the door and him asking you to let them in. Not exactly “Year of the Cat” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. But it was a fun little single and it rose to #2 in their homeland and #3 in North America and earned him yet another gold single from the States.

Silly Love Songs” took on the criticisms head-on. “People have been doing love songs forever…I like ’em, other people like ’em and there’s a lot of people I love. I’m lucky…’you’ may call them silly but what’s wrong with that?” Nothing apparently. The song was a smash, the #1 song of the year in the U.S. in fact, making Paul the first person to have a year-end best-seller with two different acts. (The Beatles had two such songs.)

It all got the album to #1 in the U.S. for seven weeks, and also to #1 in Canada where it was the second-biggest album of the year behind Frampton Comes Alive.

Were the critics appeased? Hardly. In general they doubled-down on their criticisms. Rolling Stone panned it, and later on Q gave it a measly 1-star. Allmusic rated it lowly too, at 2-stars. They noted that it was a “full band effort (which) ironically winds up considerably less cohesive” than past works and suggesting Paul was “resting on his laurels”, although complimenting “Beware My Love” (the “best-written song”) and the “bit of charm” in Linda’s song.

Wings hot streak ccntinued through the year, critics notwithstanding. They were touring North America to great success and later in the year put out the million-selling live album, Wings Over America.