September 16 – Song Title Was Almost As Long As Band’s Time In Spotlight

Well, one hit is still more than I’ve had or most other people have, so no there’s no shame in being a One Hit Wonder. Since today marks the 96th anniversary of B.B. King’s birth, it seems appropriate that we remember one of the definitive such songs of the 1990s – one which happens to borrow from B.B. heavily. Who remembers the Primitive Radio Gods and (take a deep breath) “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand.” ? It was very much the one hit for that “band” as well as one of the oddest alternative rock hits of the decade. And it was sitting at #1 on the short-lived Canadian alternative rock chart this day in 1996. It had already spent six weeks on top of the American one that summer.

The Primitive Radio Gods have had a super-natural lifespan for an under-the-radar band. They formed around 1985, then going by the name The I-rails, and are apparently still an active commodity in one form or another. The L.A.-area band consisted of Chris O’Connor, guitarist Jeff Sparks and drummer Tim Lauteria, plus after this song hit the bigtime, another guitarist, Luke Mcauliffe, but they’ve always been the baby of bassist and singer O’Connor. In fact, this hit single was made by O’Connor by himself in a friend’s garage. The I-rails had done four indie records by 1994, and somewhere along the line, they more or less fell apart. O’Connor had made this song, or a demo for it at least, prior to 1994, found it when cleaning out the garage, or something to that effect. He mailed it to a few A&R guys, and one, Jonathan Daniel liked it. He would become something of a fairy godfather for the band. He quickly signed O’Connor to a publishing deal with Fiction Records, then somehow used connections to get them signed to a recording deal with CBS. Later, on after they’d dropped the band, Sire had signed them but failed to put out a follow-up record due to corporate restructuring, Daniel would return to sign them to an indie label he ran.

Standing Outside…” was nothing if not eclectic in inspiration. The title apparently came from a similarly-titled, obscure song  by Canadian folkie Bruce Cockburn, “Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand.” The beat is very hip-hop and ’90s but the underlying sound is a sample of B.B. King doing “How Blue Can You Get?” . O’Connor wisely gave songwriting co-credits to Leonard and Jane Feather, who wrote the B.B. number. Add in some melancholy and slightly disjointed lyrics about a couple separated by space and mentality and nice, twinkly piano and you have…something different.

The song blasted off slowly, but after it was used in the movie The Cable Guy, it took off…like a Rocket, which happened to be the name of the album Columbia had them quickly record. It soon went gold in the States. The single became popular on MTV and ran up the Billboard charts, eventually hitting #1 on the Alternative Rock one, and #10 on overall radio airplay. To the north in Canada, it did even better, also topping their alternative charts and going to #2 as a single. We can thank (or curse…no, thank!) John Mellencamp whose “Key West Intermezzo” blocked the phone booth song from #1.

The Primitive Radio Gods put out another album last year, but seem destined to be forever known for the song allmusic pegged squarely : “all the appeal of an adult novelty for most listeners… it was out of the ordinary…but not something that you would want to investigate much further.” Gone with the phone booths perhaps?

September 16 – Hollies Sound Went Swampy & Sales Went Soaring

The Hollies had their biggest success by sounding…decidedly unlike the Hollies! “Long Cool Woman” hit #1 in Canada on this day in 1972; it came close in the U.S., getting to #2, making it their highest-charter there. Although huge at home in the UK (where they’d scored 16 top 10 singles to that point), they’d had more limited success in the U.S., with 1966’s “Bus Stop” at #5 their most popular tune prior.

Strangely, while it was also a #2 hit in New Zealand, it was only a minor hit in their Britain, making just #32. Perhaps that was because while most of the Hollies tunes were big on pop melody and harmonies, this rocker was a definite departure and sounded more than a little like CCR. The song was co-written by Allan Clarke of the band, and the duo of Cook & Greenaway, who not long before had written “I’d Like to Teach The World To Sing” by the New Seekers. Singer Clarke admits he emulated John Fogerty’s voice for the record, and rumor has it Fogerty was none too amused. It makes its topping out at #2 in the U.S. slightly ironic, as CCR themselves are famous for having several songs reach that peak but no #1s in their career.

It was a particularly big day for bassist Bernie Calvert, who was celebrating his 30th birthday on the day. Calvert had joined the band in 1966 and was with them through their most successful period including this song. He’s still around so happy 79th, Bernie! Although he quit the band in the ’80s, Calvert was the bass player listed when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

September 15 – Jackson Record Was No. 1 On Charts, But Not Fans Hearts

Having a #1 hit always is a proverbial feather in a musician’s cap. It has a definite cachet to it. It’s an achievement, and out of all the thousands of albums (or singles) that come out every year, usually no more than 30 or so hit the top. But for all that, there are still some real caveats to it. For instance, sometimes something catches the spirit of the time briefly but doesn’t stand up to the test of time…Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-ling” anyone? And of course, not all weeks are created equal. Record sales traditionally spike close to Christmas and sometimes in the summer, and drop off early in the year, so an album might sell 200 000 copies one week and end up at #3 whereas a month earlier or later that level of sales would have made it a solid #1.

All that as a long-winded way of mentioning Jackson Browne had his one and only #1 hit in the U.S. this week in 1980 with his sixth album, Hold Out. It came about three years after his highly-regarded Running On Empty (which peaked at #3 but, with its enduring popularity, ended up selling better than three times as many copies as Hold Out) and four years after his last conventional studio album, the Pretender.

He had many of his usual talented cohorts around for the new record, including drummer Russ Kunkel, co-producer Greg Ladanyi, Danny Kortchmar (who played maracas on the hit single “Boulevard”) and of course, David Lindley who’s guitar work – especially lap steel type – really stood out on the previous record. Lindley’s prominence was diminished however, and more keyboards were brought in, to no great level of appreciation among his fans. It was a somewhat more mainstream pop-glossy rock effort than previous Jackson ones, reflecting on life in southern California at the time and his own search for love since his wife had commit suicide almost four years prior.

The result was an uneven seven song album, with only one (again, “Boulevard”) running less than four and a half minutes. The apparent climax was the final bit, the eight minute “Hold On, Hold Out” with its grandeur, varying speeds and his spoken word bit to his intended love. Although in places it seemed eerily reminiscent, it didn’t seem to match the universal appeal of the last record’s long confessional bit, “Load Out/Stay”.

Critics generally panned the record whole-heartedly. For example, Rolling Stone at the time of its release suggested “lyrically Hold Out is probably the weakest record he’s ever made and suggesting it lacks “pop grace or writerly precision of Browne’s best work.” They particularly liked the final track, where they thought his spoken bits sounded “flat, forced and even selfish.” Years later, allmusic essentially agreed, giving it just 2-stars, lowest of anything he’d done to that point. They found him “less sure-footed as a performer” and especially found “Disco Apocalypse” to be “foolish.” It should be noted that most fan reviews of it were more positive, though few figured it was one of his stand-out works.

Panned or not, it managed to find the top of the charts between the Rolling Stones (Emotional Rescue) and Queen (The Game) and ended up as double-platinum. In Canada it made it to #6, but elsewhere the album was somewhat over-looked. In both lands, it was the peppy single “Boulevard” that got it attention; that single hit #19 at home and #4 in Canada, where it was his third top 10 song.

Browne followed up three years later with the somewhat better-reviewed, but weaker selling Lawyers in Love

September 15 – Bonus Bit : Sultans Of Swing

Once again, we have a post written for Hanspostcard’s site and his “draft” of great songs. Lots of interesting picks from a bevy of good music writers and fans there, so we encourage you to have a look there. Last time out here I picked an obscure, but worthy song from a Toronto band few outside of the city had heard of. Few in the city have probably heard of them, truth be known. I dedicated the pick to the many hard-working musicians who fly under the radar and play night after night for the love of making music and the glimmering hope of maybe someday hitting it big. This time around I pick a song that is about that, by a band which was at the time like that – Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits.

It launched the career of a band that quickly went on to become one of Britain’s biggest and most respected… their Brothers in Arms album would be the biggest-seller of the 1980s in the UK and sell in the tens of millions worldwide. And it all started with a little ditty about another blue collar bar band who dubbed themselves the Sultans of Swing.

The song is now a rock radio classic of course, and Dire Straits got to play some of the biggest concerts of their time including Live Aid. But it wasn’t always that way. When they first let this song be heard, they were a struggling act without a record deal themselves. Singer/guitarist Mark Knopfler was nearly 30 years old and as the band’s bassist, John Illsley – Knopfler’s roommate at the time – recalls, “we were living on next to nothing. We weren’t even able to pay the gas bill.”

But they had talent. Mark was not only a highly-talented guitarist who could finger pick with the best of them, but a good writer (he had an English degree after all) and most importantly, a great eye and ear for interesting stories. “Sultans of Swing” came about rather like his lyrics suggest. It was a rainy night in the Deptford neighborhood of London and Knopfler was walking around. He stopped in at a rather dingy, and nearly empty pub for a quick pint and there was a jazz-ish type band playing on stage. “They were rather tired blokes in pullovers,” he later said of them. They also weren’t of earth-shattering talent. But they had confidence. At the end when the “time bell (rang)” they said enthusiastically “Good night! We are the Sultans of Swing!”. Knopfler found that pretty funny, given the surroundings and disinterest…as the song suggests, a few drunken youth who “don’t give a damn about any trumpet-playing band.” He went home and fashioned out the song.

He played it first on an old steel guitar, but he and the others in the band felt it lacked a little something. But when he altered a few chords and guitars “it came alive as I played it on that ’61 Strat!”. Indeed it did. They found the money to record a demo of it and passed some copies out. One ended up with a BBC DJ, Charlie Gillett, who liked it and decided to play it on his show, despite them not having an official record out. That did the trick. People started requesting it at the BBC, and soon Phonogram signed them and got them to re-record it and an entire album, their late-’78 self-titled debut.

Sultans of Swing” sounded like little else on air in 1979. It wasn’t British punk or new wave, nor disco or the polished California pop sounds that North America adored. People far and wide took notice. The Spokane Chronicle suggested it was “remarkable, both for its lyrics and the phenomenal guitar sound of Knopfler.” Rolling Stone soon gave it a listen and declared it the highlight off a very good debut, and compared Mark to Bob Dylan (which is often a heavy cross to bear for a new musician.) The song hit the top 5 in the U.S. and Canada and top 10 in Britain, and pushed the album to double-platinum status in both their homeland and States, and double that in Canada.

For me, it’s a great song I never get tired of. I love the story-telling ways and the pace and of course that guitar. I’m not a fan of self-indulgent guitar solos Heavy Metal style, but I love Mark’s tasteful little solo at the end … and get annoyed when radio fade out to cut it from our listening experience. Guitar World agree, ranking it as the 22nd best guitar solo of all-time.

Beginner’s luck? Hardly. The band followed it up with several great song-based albums. As Illsley points out, luck might have had a wee bit to do with it but “the fact of the matter was it was a bloody good song, the band was pretty damn good and we worked bloody hard.” Always a good recipe for musical success.

Sadly, no one seems to have kept track of the real Sultans of Swing that were on stage that night to find out what their day jobs were… or how they felt in being immortalized in song.

September 14 – Ed Introduced Cali Psychedelia To Southern Rednecks

Today we remember Ed King, a guitarist with an interesting resume : two decades, two regions, two styles, one talent. King was a primary member of the Strawberry Alarm Clock and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and was born on this day in 1949 near L.A.

King got into playing guitars young and was a founding member of the psychedelic Strawberry Alarm Clock, a band who hit the bigtime briefly with “Incense and Peppermints”, a song which King co-composed as a teen. However, they had all sorts of internal strife and changes in lineup and couldn’t sustain their popularity (even though they still are going today with some original members. But for awhile they were indeed big, and while touring at the height of their popularity, they had a Southern Rock band opening for them – The One Percent. They seemed quite talented to King so he spoke to the apparent leader of that group, Ronnie Van Zant and said he’d join their band if they wanted. Van Zant declined…at first.

Fast forward to 1972, and King got a call from Van Zant. A bassist had just quit the band, which now was called Lynyrd Skynyrd. Did King want to join? The Strawberry Alarm Clock was on hiatus and seemed washed up by then, so Ed wasted no time flying east. Initially they brought him in to play bass, which he does quite well, but after the departed member returned they decided he could shine better on regular guitar, even though they already had a couple of six-stringers. Soon they were in the studio and their great run began with their “Three Guitar Army.” Although he played bass on one of their Classic Rock Anthems, “Free Bird”, they soon shifted his workload more to the guitars. Not only was he a standout guitarist, he also wrote a fair bit of the music for their best-loved tunes including “Saturday Night Special” and notably, “Sweet Home Alabama.” King opens that song with his guitar work, Former member Artimus Pyle said of that “his kickoff to ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is possibly the most recognized opening riff ever.”

Music knows no boundaries, but it was obvious within and without that when it came to Skynyrd members, “one of these things is not like the other.” The band was basically Florida lads, who called Alabama home. They were “rednecks”, and loved to party and brawl. In fact, as far removed from British punk as they were, their rough-and-ready to rumble attitude would have fit in just fine hanging with the Clash and Stranglers back then. Ed, on the other hand described himself as “a California hippie.” Although they liked King (Pyle would later refer to him as “a very generous man, always willing to spend time with (a) fellow guitarist”) he and Van Zant didn’t always see eye to eye. King said “I was just there to play music. I wasn’t there to get beaten up, get spit on, get dragged around a room…” so almost inevitably he ended up quitting the band, mid-tour in 1975, just as their fortunes were beginning to soar. He’d later say “I was out of my mind for quitting… it was also the best thing I ever did.”

King would re-join a reunited Skynyrd in ’87 and play with them on and off again for a decade, returning to the studio for a trio of new albums including ’93’s The Last Rebel. Sadly he had a number of health issues later on in life, including a heart transplant in 2011, and he died of cancer in 2018. Fellow Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington said then “Ed was a brother and a great songwriter and guitar player. I know he will be reunited with the rest of the boys in that Rock’n’Roll Heaven.”

September 14 – Avant Garde Montrealers Fire Up A Hit

A rare recent story of perseverance, luck and talent combining to pay off in the modern music business began 17 years ago today. Arcade Fire released their first full album, Funeral in very little notice or acclaim at first.

The Canadian alternative rock act really was that – alternative. The band typically consisted of six musicians, including leader Win Butler, his wife, Regine Chassagne, and his brother William. They’d formed in Montreal at the turn of the century, with a slightly different lineup, and added Regine in shortly thereafter. Win met the communications grad when she was singing jazz at an art gallery event. They never quite fit the standard sound of the day, for one thing, utilizing far more – and different – instruments than most rock bands. Accordions, xylophones, French horns and even hurdy-gurdies find their way onto the stage and record far more with Arcade Fire than most acts. And all the musicians are multi-talented. No “drum and nothing else” or “I can play a Fender guitar very well but nada besides that” types here. For instance, on Funeral, Win, the lead singer on most tracks, plays bass, xylophone, various percussion instruments and synthesizers. Regine handles keyboards, drums, accordions, even recorders and takes the mic for “Haiti”, a track reflecting her family’s heritage.

They were signed to Merge Records, a truly indie label out of North Carolina who’d at times hosted Dinosaur Jr. and Bob Mould. The company had spotty distribution and limited clout, so it was no surprise that Arcade Fire’s 2003 debut EP went relatively unnoticed. Funeral could easily have met with the same outcome, and initially tended to do so. It wasn’t a fast-riser on charts, and in fact only peaked at #23 at home, #33 in the UK and missed the top 100 in the States entirely. Yet through word of mouth, some celebrity fans, and just the flat out good music, it eventually sold gold in the U.S., and platinum in both Canada and Britain. (Their follow-up, Neon Bible quickly hit #1 in Canada and #2 in the UK but sold less in the long run.)

Likewise, none of the five singles off it were major hits in North America, although four made Brit top 40 charts, the biggest being the lively “Rebellion” which made #19.. Yet somehow, people found out about the intense, melodic and…weird, album that sounded nothing like Nickelback, Rhianna or whatever else was dominating pop radio in 2004 and ’05. Singles like “Neighborhood #3 (Power’s Out”) and “Wake Up” were energetic, enthusiastic and throwbacks to some other time. Although what time that was isn’t obvious.

Things began happening for Arcade Fire thanks to intense touring for the following year. David Bowie heard them and became a big booster, even recording an EP with them. That caught the attention of British radio, and soon TV shows like David Letterman’s and then the ear of one Bono. The U2 frontman liked the album and began playing their song “Wake Up” as they hit the stage for their 2005 tour, which obviously attracted a whole lot more ears to the band. They got to open three Canadian shows for U2, even appearing on stage with them in Montreal. Things really took off from there.

As well they should. Critcal reviews were remarkably good for Funeral (the album got its name, by the way, when several of the band members lost family members during the time recording it.) Entertainment Weekly noticed and gave it a “B+”. Rolling Stone handed it 4-stars, saying “amid all the loss and breakups, Arcade Fire manage to be strangely joyous.” Echoed by the Village Voice which scored it “A-”, noting that they found them “too fond of drama but aware of its small place in the big world and usually beautiful.” Drowned in Sound called it “empowering and hopeful.” Britain’s NME considered it the second best album of 2005 (when most heard it for the first time.) In all, Metacritic , which averages out all the reviews out there, found it averaged a 90% rating, placing it squarely among the 100 best albums of all-time.

Arcade Fire are still going and have gone on to win Grammys and Junos, and sign with EMI Records. Yet many, including this site, would say they never rose so high as their celebration of six feet under – Funeral.

September 13 – Yesterday, When The Fab Four Were Really The Fab One

A big day in pop music history about 20 450 “yesterdays” back. This day in 1965 the Beatles put out their very-different single “Yesterday” in North America. In retrospect it seems pretty strange that it was already out in the UK…but wasn’t a single. Of course, there’s a reason for that.

Yesterday” is generally listed in Beatles liner notes as written by “Lennon/McCartney” as was the pair’s habit even if one did most of the work. In this case that one was Paul. In fact, the song stands out for several reasons, not the least of which is that Paul McCartney is the only one of the Beatles on it! McC wrote the song and sang it, playing the acoustic guitar, an Epiphone Texan with steel strings and producer George Martin brought in a four-piece orchestral string section to complete it.

McCartney’s always said the melody came to him in a dream. He’s said at times that was in a Paris hotel, other times it was at his girlfriend Jane Asher’s house. The latter seems more likely since he also said he got right up and played it on a piano (and one might think recorded it too) so he wouldn’t forget it. Peter Asher seems to remember that, as well as Paul playing it for him and his mother (also a musician), asking them if they recognized it. It came to him in a dream, but the bassist worried it might have been someone else’s song that he knew sub-consciously. It seemed it wasn’t.

Lyrics were another matter. The idea for the sound of the lyrics was there, but the words took time. The band’s initial working title for it was “Scrambled Eggs” and it had the line “scrambled eggs, oh baby, I love your legs.” Probably wisely, Paul decided that might be improved upon. He came up with the basic idea and the line “all my troubles seemed so far away” which he thought was poignant, and easy to use. “It’s easy to rhyme those ‘A’s”. The result about a guy pining for the good old days and a love from the past was a little gloomier than many previous Beatles hits.

So that was that, and they all agreed they had a bonafide smash on their hands…right? Well, no. Paul didn’t like Martin’s idea of having an orchestra at first. “Oh no, George! We’re a rock and roll band and I don’t think that is a good idea,” the producer remembered him arguing. Then there were the other three, left twiddling their thumbs on the sidelines. None of them were happy – George Harrison seemed most outspoken in complaining about it – and they vetoed it being released as a single at first.

It was put on the British edition of the Help album, but not the North American one. That seems very weird, but wasn’t uncommon for them at the time, when they were working with different record labels in different countries. Americans would end up getting it on LP in ’66 as part of Yesterday & Today. They released it as a standalone single over here, and in a few other areas like Scandinavia, with a solid b-side as well, “I Should Have Known Better.

It was a big hit, as we know and would’ve expected. It hit #1 in the States (where it was their tenth chart-topper in their very young career ), as well as Australia and Sweden, and won them the Ivor Novello Award for Song of the Year. And it earned them more critical respect from older types who’d previously written them off as teeny-bopper noise-makers. As Peter Asher notes, it “became the exemplar of how to marry a pop song and a string quartet.” And that found fans far and wide.

BMI reported it was the third-most played song of the 20th Century, and fittingly the BBC, despite the band’s initial downplaying of it at home, voted it the “Best Pop Song of the 20th Century” in 1999. Apparently so, as Guinness and the book of records say it has been recorded by over 3000 (!) different artists, making it the most-covered song ever.

Fittingly, it was also picked as the title for a 2019 movie about the Beatles (and the fictitious idea of them not being remembered down the road.)

By the way, fans of McCartney might want to take a look at a new mini-series on Hulu currently, McCartney 321, with Paul sitting down in a studio with Rick Rubin to look back on the Beatles and his life since.

September 13 – Carpenters Built A Fine Record

The Carpenters became “cool” again 27 years ago. A remarkably good tribute album came out this day in 1994. One which seems surprising at first glance. If I Were A Carpenter plays like a jukebox full of Carpenters 45s… performed largely by underground alt rockers of the day. Sheryl Crow was likely the biggest star on the record at the time, and she had just one album under her belt. Some acts were somewhat known- Matthew Sweet, Cracker, Sonic Youth – others would eventually become known- Dishwalla, Grant Lee Buffalo – and others truly are “underground”, over here at least. For instance, Shonen Knife, aka the “Osaka Ramones”, have a following in Japan, but were unknown in North America.

It might seem surprising so many artists chose to honor the soft-rock champions of the 70s, but as Rolling Stone note, “for a generation weaned on the cynicism of the Vietnam War and Watergate, the Carpenters provided the ironic soundtrack.” It rated the album 4-star, a rating also given by allmusic. Standouts included Crow’s country-ish “Solitaire”, Cracker (“without their usual snideness” ) doing “Rainy Days and Mondays,” Johnette Napolitano (of Concrete Blonde) and her big take on “Hurting Each Other” and Sonic Youth’s feedback-drenched “Superstar.” Some might recall that song, and the album, being discussed by Jason Bateman and Ellen (Elliot) Page in the movie Juno, the soundtrack of which also includes the song. 

September 12 – Bowie Bowed Out Of Berlin, To Good Effect

Balancing the scales between avant garde and experimental art and commercially palatable music is quite a trick… but one David Bowie often pulled off. Case in point, this day in 1980, when he put out his 14th studio album – Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, usually known simply as Scary Monsters.

It was in retrospect, rather a “bridge” for David, not only going from the ’70s to the ’80s but in going from experimental and very European, with his previous trio of albums referred to as “The Berlin Trilogy” and the very successful pop superstar that would emerge with Let’s Dance about three years later. Unlike the past trio of records, Bowie didn’t record it in Germany and didn’t call on odd-but-brilliant Eno for help producing. But he did have much of his backing band back, including guitarist Carlos Alomar, and producer Tony Visconti, who’d worked on a total of eight Bowie albums before. They largely recorded it in New York City – even calling on E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan to help out on a few songs – with a few final takes and overdubs done back in London. Other guest appearances included guitarist Robert Fripp, from King Crimson, who did the lead on “Fashion” and Pete Townshend who also added some six-string to “Because You’re Young.” And not atypical for Bowie’s quirkiness, Adrian Belew says he was paid to also do some guitar bits but never asked to actually do them! The versatile Bowie himself handled any number of synthesizers, other keyboards and even some sax.

The record itself was still offbeat compared to most of what was popular in 1980, but definitely had a bit more pop accessibility than some of his late-’70s output. He later said “there was a certain degree of optimism making it…I felt very positive about the future (and) I just got down to writing a really comprehensive and well-crafted record.” The result was, to biographer Nicholas Pegg, “the triumphant culmination of Bowie’s steely art rock phase and a crucial doorway into the 1980s.”

There were nine songs, ten if you consider “It’s No Game” as two. The interesting piece opens and closes the record, and stands out due to its nearly shouted Japanese bits. They were courtesy Japanese actress Michi Hirota. Bowie says the song was “to break down a particular sexist attitude about women,” especially Asian ones, whom he noted “think an awful lot, with quite as much strength as any man.” The Eastern theme also extended to an instrumental which was cut from the LP, “Crystal Japan”, which soon emerged as a commercial jingle for a Japanese soft drink. Other tracks included “Teenage Wildlife”, according to the singer about youth “taking a short view of life, not looking too far ahead” and the funky “Fashion” . But Scary Monsters crowning moment, and most talked-about one was e return of one of his favorite song characters – Major Tom, who he sang about in his first smash hit, “Space Oddity.” Tom’s story continues on the “Ashes to Ashes”, the first single off the record. RCA backed that by making what was at the time the biggest budget music video ever for it. It cost something like 250 000 pounds to make, or well over a million dollars in today’s cash.

It paid off, since the album sold, and garnered good reviews. Rolling Stone gave it 4.5-stars, outdone by Britain’s Record Mirror which unabashedly rated it “seven stars out of five!”. Retrospective looks included Spin, 4-stars, and allmusic, which gave it 5-stars, his first such rating since Heroes. They declared it to be “dense but accessible music” but also “Bowie’s last great album.”

The record-buying public would disagree with that last statement, but did take to it. It went platinum in both the UK and Canada, and in fact was a #1 hit in the former, and Australia as well. In Canada it made it to #9, in the U.S., #14. Overall it was his biggest-seller since ’73’s Aladdin Sane. Helping that happen was “Ashes to Ashes”, his first British chart-topper since …yep, it’s previous instalment if you will, “Space Oddity.”

September 12 – So, Which One Was ‘Pink’?

Well they got their wish- and didn’t recognize him! Pink Floyd put out their excellent Wish You Were Here on this day in 1975, loosely an homage to their former band-mate Syd Barrett.

Syd actually showed up in the studio one day, and at first the band didn’t recognize the suddenly overweight and bald, odd man. He had taken to eating a lot of pork chops, and liked the demo of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” although he showed no signs of recognition of the subject matter being himself. Roger Waters recalled crying, saying “Syd sat ’round and talked for a bit, but wasn’t really there.” It was the last any of the band saw of him.

As for the follow-up to Dark Side Of the Moon, it was at the time often considered a disappointment and although it hit #1 in the U.S. and UK (and sold 6X platinum in the U.S.) it was considered a slight commercial misstep as well. Hard to imagine that, given that it was certified gold in the U.S. after only five days and set a record at the time for pre-orders. The album is not your typical rock record. It consists of only three songs, sandwiched by one long, 32 minute piece which is broken in half. Essentially it’s a thematic homage to their former bandmate, Barrett and at the same time a bashing of the music business (Blender would later note “Waters bitches beautifully, biting the hand that feeds him.”) David Gilmour sang lead on “Wish You Were Here” and “Welcome to the Machine”, Waters took the mic for the sprawling “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” while they recruited their friend Roy Harper to take lead on “Have A Cigar.” That track, mocking the glib, condescending industry types, was the only single released off Wish You Were Here, and even that, only in selected countries. (It was a top 20 hit in France for instance, but not released as a 7” vinyl in North America.)

Despite – or because of – the massive success they’d had with Dark Side of the Moon it wasn’t an overly happy time for ‘Floyd. Alan Parsons, who’d been so instrumental in the studio for their last album had declined to work on this one, being busy with his own new band. Instead, a new engineer was brought in to Abbey Road and had some technical difficulties including erasing some of the tapes, requiring re-recording. Drummer Nick Mason had a “sense of apathy,” according to David Gilmour, who noted that he wasn’t in an ideal mindset either. “All your childhood dreams had been sort of realized. We had the biggest-selling record in the world…the girls and the money, the fame. You had to reassess what you were in it for. (It was) sort of an empty time.” Perhaps it’s remarkable it turned out as well as it did.

Part of that apparently also comes back to Gilmour, who thought Dark Side‘s songs didn’t get the basic concept over well enough, so this time “I thought we should work harder marrying the idea to the vehicle that connects it.” Time has treated the record well. Rolling Stone, which at the time called it “lackadasical” and suggested the songs might as well have been about Waters’ brother-in-law getting a parking ticket, would later give it a perfect 5-star rating and Q in 1998 ranked it the 34th greatest album ever. David Gilmour has called it his favorite album of the Floyd’s catalog.