September 25 – Lifehouse Sprang To Life

Your childhood church probably didn’t sound like this! Out of the California pews and onto worldwide radio, Lifehouse put out their first – and biggest – single on this day in 2000, “Hanging By A Moment”.

Lifehouse were put together in 1995 under the name Blyss by guitarist/vocalist Jason Wade who was just 15 at the time. He and two friends, drummer Jon Palmer and bassist Sergio Andrade formed the band which was largely spiritual in nature and played churches as well as some colleges. They put out an EP under the name Blyss in 1999, which got them noticed by DreamWorks who signed them. After a name change, Lifehouse went to work on their first album No Name Face with up-and-coming producer Ron Aniello. He seemed to be the perfect man for the job (and would later go on to produce records for the likes of Barenaked Ladies, Jars of Clay and one Bruce Springsteen) seeing as how he seemed to have a Christian background similar to the band’s, and he was multi-talented, filling in their sound with additional guitars, keyboards and percussion! Plus he knew Brendan O’Brien, famous for producing Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam, who he got to do the final mix of the record.

The first song on the CD was the first one they put out as a single, rather wisely. “It was the most up-tempo, radio-friendly song,” Wade explains.

Radio-friendly it was, and probably in Wade’s mind, a true gift from God. And who’s to say he’s wrong? He says it was the easiest song he ever wrote. “I heard the melody in my head before it was written,” he recalls but he noted “I couldn’t tell if it was a song on the radio.” When convinced it wasn’t “I picked up a guitar and it was kind of creepy because the song was almost written by itself. Within five minutes the lyrics and everything were finished.”

That was a very productive five minutes! Although being an unknown band it didn’t instantly jump up charts, it didn’t take long to find a receptive home on several types of radio formats with its catchy rock melody, grungey singing and vague message of love. Before long it would end up going to #2 on Billboard and spend three weeks at #1 on the Alternative Rock chart. It hit #1 in Australia and even got noticed in the UK, where it reached #25. In Canada it didn’t chart due to not being put out as a physical single, but it was the most-played song on radio for 2001; at home in the U.S. it was the #1 song of ’01. Curiously it was only the third song to be the biggest of a year without topping a weekly chart, “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham in 1965 and Faith Hill’s “Breathe” in 2000 being the others. “Hanging By A Moment” accomplished that by staying on the charts for 54 weeks and being dominant on alternative rock, mainstream rock, pop and other types of radio. Wikipedia point out that it was “one of the biggest rock hits ever by a contemporary Christian band crossing over to the mainstream.” And it helped the album, No Name Face, rise into the top 10 at home, in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark, selling better than four million copies.

Lifehouse have put out six albums since, scoring another top 10 hit in 2005 with “You and Me” but it’s hard to tell if Lifehouse is still “live.” They haven’t put out a new album since 2015 and recently were scrapped from a Goo Goo Dolls tour for unknown reasons and Wade has been busy with a spin-off band, Ozwald.

September 25 – Bobby Wonders Why This Was His One Hit

September 25 is designated “National One Hit Wonder Day” so in honor of that we look at one of the best examples of that from the 1980s. Don’t worry, this day shows your dreams can come true – but maybe also become your nightmare! Bobby McFerrin was at #1 on Billboard this day in 1988 with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

The bumper-sticker philosophy knocked Guns’N’Roses out of the top spot and also went to the top in Canada. Quite a shift in gears there – from one of the few heavy metal #1s to a wacky, acapella one driven by whistling! He got the idea from a philosophy espoused by Indian spiritualist Meher Baba, who counted Pete Townshend among his followers. “It’s pretty neat philosophy in four words,” McFerrin says. One which won McFerrin Grammys for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Male. One would think this would be a wonderful thing, but McFerrin might have had regrets. He’s a pretty well-respected jazz pianist and singer, who’d won three-straight Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammys before (by now he’s collected 10 Grammys in total) and had worked on records for the likes of Al Jarreau, Herbie Hancock and Chick Correa. But after this song, he has largely been written off as a novelty act – a rich one though, given the revenue from this gold single and its use in commercials and the Cocktail movie.

It wasn’t that movie’s only cheery contribution to the top of the charts. A few weeks later the Beach Boys had a remarkable comeback with their first #1 since the ’60s with “Kokomo” off the same soundtrack.

September 24 – Plant Moved Foward By Looking Back

Led Zeppelin have been at times considered the originators of Heavy Metal, but anyone with a perfunctory knowledge of their output realizes they put out a diverse range of sounds spanning various rock/pop genres over the ’70s. Much of that might have come from singer Robert Plant’s interests. Nonetheless, once Zeppelin was done, Plant seemed eager to differentiate himself and explore even more territory (as continues on to date as his projects with Alison Krauss show, for example). After a couple of solo albums, he got together a side-project who looked back to the pre-Zep days. The Honeydrippers were the result and they put out their only record, Volume 1, on this day in 1984.

Their origins date back to ’81, when he would sometimes perform under the name – which they took from early Bluesman Roosevelt Sykes’ nickname – and play old retro early rock or blues numbers. Atlantic Records boss, and Plant’s friend, Ahmet Ertegun liked the idea and had played around with the idea of having an album of old ’50s songs he liked done by a new band. So he recruited Plant, who in turn brought in some high-profile talent, most notably including ex-bandmate Jimmy Page, as well as Jeff Beck on guitars. Rounding out the lineup were Paul Shaffer on keyboards (who at the time played with the Blues Brothers when they were active) , Stray Cat Brian Setzer on an uncredited guitar appearance, drummer Dave Weckl, bassist Wayne Pedzwater (who’d soon go on to work frequently with Michael Jackson) and Nile Rodgers who added yet some more guitars and co-produced the record with Ertegun himself. Like our reader Mike Ledano pointed out it was “as close to a Page/Plant reunion as we were likely to get in the ’80s but this is very different from Led Zeppelin.”

The result was an 18-minute, five song EP (which eventually came out on a CD with a live bonus track) consisting of Rudy Toombs “I Get A Thrill” (Toombs was an old Vaudevillian who became a staff songwriter for Ertegun in the ’60s), Ray Charles “I Got A Woman”, “Young Boy Blues” , a song co-written by Phil Spector and the two singles – “Rockin’ At Midnight” and “Sea of Love.” The former was said to be Plant’s favorite of the lot, a cover of a 1947 song. The latter, the lush, “Sea of Love”, a 1959 song by Phil Phillips, became the breakout hit.

Allmusic rated it 4-stars, noting “Plant always harbored a deep abiding love of early rock & roll” and suggesting while “it may not be much more than a lark but it’s truly fun.”

The surprised public figured so too. “Rockin’ at Midnight “ hit the top 20 while “Sea of Love” got to #3,and #1 in Canada, where the EP went triple-platinum in about four months. Overall the record got to #5 in the U.S. but did little overseas.

The Honeydrippers toured in ’85, joined by the Uptown Horns , but plans for a full-length followup album never materialized.

September 24 – Did Renee Turn Around When She Heard Song?

Most lovelorn teenagers listen to sad pop music. Michael Brown decided to make sad pop music instead! His New York band The Left Banke hit the American top 40 this day in 1966 with their biggie, “Walk Away Renee.” The song would make it up to #5, and #3 in Canada…not bad for a debut by essentially a high school band.

The Left Banke had formed the year before, with Brown on keyboards and their main writer, and four others including singer Steve Martin – no, not the “wild and crazy guy” – who later added his real last name, Caro to avoid confusion. Bassist Tom Finn had a girlfriend, Renee, whom 16 year-old Brown had the fortune or misfortune of being infatuated with. He wrote the song for her, as well as their two latter, less successful hits, “Pretty Ballerina” and “She May Call You Tonight.” Brown said besides the lovely but unavailable Renee, he was also inspired by the Mamas and the Papas sound-wise on the song.

Luckily for the Left Banke, Michael’s dad, Harry Lookofsky (don’t ask me…Lookofsky’s son Brown?) was a talented violinist and he took control of the band, managing them and producing their record. He played the violin on the string-heavy selection and got his classical music friends to add other strings and flutes, creating one of the better examples of classical-tinged pop or “baroque rock.” Surprisingly, some of their other racks came closer to the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield in sound, but “Walk Away Renee” was the one people fixed on.

Not surprisingly, given the kids’ age and their small record label, it wasn’t an instant runaway hit. In fact by the time it hit the charts, Brown had replaced the others (his thing for Renee may have hastened the bassist’s departure one might think) with new musicians including Michael McKean, who years later we’d come to know as an actor. When the song started zooming up Billboard though, he got the original quintet back together to tour a little and put out one more album, which didn’t generate much interest or follow-up hit singles. They packed it in briefly, but reconvened, put out one more album in the ’80s and have worked together more years than not since. Steve Martin Caro passed away recently at age 71. Renee, meanwhile is apparently Renee Fladen-Kamm, who went to the West Coast to teach singing and arts. Perhaps one of the song’s she teaches her students is the one Rolling Stone list among their 300 greatest songs of all-time, the one written about her.

September 23 – Billy’s Experiment In Nylon

The two of them might not love it, but many of us seem to lump today’s birthday boy, Bruce Springsteen (wishing him a happy 73 today!)  and Billy Joel together in the same sort of musical box. Here we like both so it doesn’t seem to be much of an insult to me, but I digress. Anyway, both singer/songwriters came to prominence in the mid-’70s, emerged from the greater New York area and were quintessential blue collar musical heroes, singing about the ordinary people they knew and respected. And by 1982 we thought we had them both pegged when they both took a hard left turn and came out with surprisingly downbeat and different-sounding records. On this day, Joel released his eighth studio album, The Nylon Curtain. A week later, Springsteen gave us his acoustic Nebraska.

Anyway, Joel’s The Nylon Curtain was something of a polarizing album. After delivering his most rock & roll-oriented, fun-loving Glass Houses in 1980, this one was a deeper but more challenging release. The short story – critics loved it, fans more or less panned it. But there’s more to it than that.

Joel was looking around America and wasn’t optimistic about what he was seeing. It was, after all, an era of inflation, unemployment, a growing chasm between the Wall Street rich and the ordinary workers in the companies they owned, fear about the Cold War… “It was during the Reagan years and… all of a sudden, you weren’t going to be able to inherit the (lifestyle) your old man had,” Joel remembers. Curiously, he was also listening to mid-era Beatles a lot at the time. Thus The Nylon Curtain came to be, an album Rolling Stone considered his most ambitious.

The album is a loosely thematic look at the U.S. in decline through the eyes of a blue collar Baby Boomer. Although the first single was the jarring “Pressure” and it contained a few missteps, like the “venomous” (in the words of Rolling Stone again) “Laura” about a guy who hates his girlfriend but realizes “living alone isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be” either, and perhaps the experimental “Scandinavian Skies” which he says was directly influenced by the sound of Beatles singles like “I Am the Walrus”, it contains some very good material and two of his best – and most under-rated – tunes: “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon”.

The former was actually inspired by a trip he paid tt Bethlehem, PA but that name didn’t fit the song structure as well. Regardless, it described any number of “Rust Belt” cities and the unfortunate workers caught in the changing times and closing factories. Rolling Stone applauded the “tune, language and singing are all brazenly direct” and felt it “could be a scene from The Deer Hunter set to music.” The mayor of Allentown, PA was impressed enough to give Joel the keys to the city next time he played there.

Goodnight Saigon” is a haunting, 7-minute epic complete with helicopter and cricket sounds (the Beatles experimentation rubbing off) that Rolling Stone called “the ultimate pop music epitaph to the Vietnam war”… “a stunner”. The piece about the band of brothers trained on Parris Island shipped out to the horrors of the Asian war with only their Doors tapes and Playboy who’d “All go down together” indeed is one of the most compelling musical takes on the reality of war and one of Billy’s best achievements.

People magazine approved, saying “Joel jackknifes (sic) into adulthood (with) a striking cycle of nine songs about the current plight of boomed babies” which are “vintage Joel with clever hooks.”

For all that, the public wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic. While by no means a flop, it was his least-successful release since 1976, selling less than even 1981’s compilation of live tunes and outtakes, Songs in the Attic. At home in the U.S. it charted to #7 and went double platinum; it topped out at #12 in Canada and only #27 across the sea in the UK. Somehow though, it did hit #1 in the Netherlands. The singles “Pressure” and “Allentown” both it the top 20 in the States, his 10th and 11th such hits, and “Allentown” although it never got higher than #17 on the weekly charts, had such enduring popularity that it was among the 50 biggest records of the year. “Goodnight Saigon” was released as a third single, but being 7 minutes, lacking a normal kind of verse/chorus structure and being about the horrors of war, was a tough sell in a time of happy synthesizers, safety dances and Duran Duran playing with bikini-clad models on yachts.

For it all, Joel says the album is “the recording I’m most proud of.” And he rebounded very nicely the next year with his more upbeat An Innocent Man which catapulted him back to the top. (Springsteen’s fate with his Nebraska similar and he too bounced back with the multi-million selling Born in the USA less than two years down the road.)

September 22 – Forgotten Gems : Gordon Lightfoot

Seeing as how autumn officially arrives later today, it seemed fitting to note the changing of the seasons with this month’s Forgotten Gem. There aren’t that many songs written about the fall, but there are plenty about summer, some of them from the perspective of days like today looking back over the lazy, hazy days past. Gordon Lightfoot may not be forgotten – particularly if you happen to be Canadian – but his early hit “Summer Side of Life” seems to often fall by the wayside when recounting his career. Which is a shame, as it’s a fine song, and it happened to be at its peak position of #21 in Canada this day in 1971.

It was the title track off his sixth album, but perhaps more notably his second Reprise record. By then he’d become well-known and loved in his homeland, scoring five top 20 hits before this album came out, but he’d only just relocated to L.A. From southern Ontario and gotten major American distribution and notice with his first hit there, “If You Could Read My Mind” the year before.

For this record, he traveled to Nashville to record, using a lot of that city’s best session players including the Jordanaires (famous for their work behind Elvis Presley) on backing vocals as well as Chip Young on electric guitars and seemingly Hargus Robbins on organ, although the players on individual tracks isn’t noted in the liner notes. Hargus was famous for playing on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde…and being nicknamed “Pig.” In all, the album was a bit more lively and fuller-sounding than his previous one, which appealed to some but not all. Allmusic figured the album “prove(d) that Lightfoot was going to be around for quite awhile” and figured “his approachable, confiding sound is best heard within the title track.” Rolling Stone noted that the song is “bouncy” but only “overly elaborate producing justifies what would otherwise be over-energetic drumming.” They also felt “his voice sounds so much like a guitar that syllables frequently heard just as notes.”

They possibly had a point there; although his voice is strong and has his distinctive timbre, we get more a pastel, impressionistic view of his lyrics than hearing every word. The song may actually be an anti-war message from the Vietnam era, but the overall theme seems to be a nostalgic looking back on days of youth with lads enjoying the “young girls everywhere” in “fields of green” before things changed and they had to “go off to fight.”.

Either way, despite getting to only #21 in Canada and barely making the top 100 Stateside, it’s one of the great but forgotten bits of “Gord’s Gold”. And no matter where he was when making the record, there’s probably a reason Gord would feel melancholy about summer ending. Another song on the record probably illustrated why most Canucks might feel melancholy with the summer’s demise – “10 Degrees and Getting Colder” is what they’d soon have to look forward to!

September 22 – Brits Found Numan Quite Pleasure-able

Beggar’s Banquet Records were probably begging Gary Numan to record more stuff! His album the Pleasure Principle hit #1 in the UK this day in 1979. It was only the second chart-topper ever for that indie label which took its name from a Rolling Stones album. And the first #1 for it was Replicas, by Tubeway Army- a band Gary fronted. More impressively, that album (with its hit, “Are Friends Electric”) preceded The Pleasure Principle by only five months !

The Pleasure Principle took off with the popularity of “Cars” there and in Canada. In Britain, the follow-up single, “Complex” was also a top 10 hit. The album eschewed all regular guitars and was heavy on synthesizer making it one of the first real “new wave” albums. It won Numan his only gold record outside of his homeland, the UK (that was in Canada) and was surprisingly well-received by some critics who don’t always appreciate new wave. Robert Christgau for instance approved, and later on Q magazine rated it 4-stars, while allmusic gave it 4.5 and said “there’s not a weak moment” on it and “if you had to own just one Gary Numan album, (this) would be it.” Unfortunately for him and Beggar’s Banquet, that seemed to be something many took to heart. While his 1980 follow-up Telekon also was a #1 hit at home, such success has been elusive for him since.

Numan’s kept working with a devoted following to his generally more goth or industrial sounding latter work, but has never made it onto North American charts since nor topped the British ones even though he’s still recording and has 22 studio albums to his name.

September 21 – Riley Taught The PTA A Thing Or Two

A country song, a “novel”, influenced and inspired by a novel made into a TV show… one of the more interesting songs of the ’60s hit #1 fifty years ago. And from then on, “Harper Valley PTA” would be a codeword for conservative hypocrites.

Not quite 23 years old, aspiring Nashville singer Jeannie C. Riley became the first female to have a song top the regular Billboard charts and the country ones at the same time … and it did the same in Canada and Australia too, for good measure.

The 1968 song was written by Tom T. Hall, an aspiring novelist who never quite made it as that, but had plenty of success writing country music tunes (including his own 1973 hit “I Love” and the theme for so many of us, “I Like Beer”!) but he says of “Harper Valley PTA” “this is my novel.” A novel, no, but it packs a lot of story into less than 4 mnutes. The song deals with a small town single mom who’s chastised for being a bad influence by the uptight school PTA… and her turning the tables on them.

Mrs. Johnson, you’re wearing your dresses way too high/ it’s been reported you’ve been drinking and runnin’ around with men…” the second verse begins, a letter to the mother from the school board. She in turn went to the school meeting and pointed out the hypocrisy of the members like Bobby Taylor who’d asked her out seven times and Shirley Thompson with the gin on her breath…before calling them out on it and calling it a “Peyton Place”. The latter was no coincidence as the song and the theme seem to borrow heavily from the massively-popular 1950s novel (which also deals with a single mother in a staunchly conservative town) which had been made into a TV show around the time Riley recorded this one. Surprisingly enough – or maybe not- “Harper Valley PTA” itself was later made into a film and an NBC sitcom which ran for three years with Barbara Eden starring as Mrs. Johnson. Among the cast was Fannie Flagg, who’d go on to write the book and screenplay, Fried Green Tomatoes.

As for the humble 7” single that hit #1 in 1968, it at the time set a record by jumping 74 spaces on Billboard in one week and went on to sell an incredible six million copies . Riley won a Grammy for best female country performance for it and was nominated for Record of the Year. Although she’d go on to have five more significant country hits in the ’70s, none of them had the appeal or crossed over onto pop/rock radio. In the late-’70s she became a Born Again Christian and has since kept singing but limited herself primarily to the Christian music market.

By the way, if you listen to it and say to yourself, “wait, it’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe”... but it’s not,” you’re not alone. Many figure that Hall pretty much fit his lyrics into the Bobby Gentry hit (which also eventually was made into a movie) the year before, but despite the similarities, Hall never credited her in the writing credits nor, from all reports was ever confronted by her over it.

September 21 – Davis Had All The Right Friends…And A Few Wrong Ones

Remembering one of the greatest guitarists you’ve never heard of on what would have been his 78th birthday. If you have heard of Jesse Ed Davis, you’re in the minority. But you’d also be in the minority if you’re a fan of ’70s music and hadn’t heard his work. After all, he was one of the most in-demand session players, worked with three of the four Beatles and rubbed shoulders with Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones.

Davis was an Oklahoma-born Native, the son of a respected painter. He became a great guitarist at a young age, and by his teens was playing in clubs in Oklahoma City. He was talented in other ways too; he got a degree in literature there. But in the ’60s he turned to music full-time, first taking a job being Conway Twitty’s touring guitarist. Eventually he moved to L.A. and became friends with fellow-Oklahoman Leon Russell as well as Levon Helm. Russell sold Davis on the idea of session work, and soon the calls came rolling in for Jesse…when he wasn’t working with Taj Mahal, whom he joined for four albums.

One of the first jobs he got as a session player was probably his best-known as well – the guitar solo on Jackson Browne’s lead-off single, “Doctor My Eyes.” Browne spoke glowingly about Davis in the movie Rumble – The Indians Who Rocked, saying he basically walked into the studio, heard the song demo and improvised the solo we hear on the spot, in one take.

Around the same time, he came to George Harrison’s attention and was invited to be a part of his Concert for Bangladesh. Harrison called him back about three years later to work on his Extra Texture album, Davis co-writing “This Guitar” with George. He got to play on Ringo Starr’s Goodnight Vienna and two John Lennon albums (Rock & Roll, Walls and Bridges) as well in the first half of the ’70s. The work kept coming in for him, doing session work with Bryan Ferry, Leonard Cohen, Cher, even Willie Nelson. Rod Stewart as well, being on his Atlantic Crossing , co-writing “Alright for an Hour” with Rod the Mod.

Unfortunately, Rod was still the hard-partying Rod The Mod at the time, and Davis’ work with him, as well as Faces (whom he toured with in 1975) and the Rolling Stones (being a part of Taj Mahal when they opened for Mick and the lads in England) exposed him to the excesses of rock, and Davis dove in with excessive gusto. Heroin addiction limited the amount of work he could do in the late-’70s and ’80s despite several attempts to quit and stints in rehab.

Sadly, it seemed to most who knew him he was getting his act together and he was actually working as an Addictions Counselor at the American Indian Free Clinic in California in 1988 when he overdosed and died. Among his final works was the album AKA Grafitti Man, with Native poet John Trudell in 1987, an album Bob Dylan picked as the best of the year.

September 20 – Maybe Bubblegummy Song Wasn’t Crazy

Maybe it’s appropriate that it came out on the same day that one of the most bubblegummy of all pop hits reached the top 42 years earlier. On this day in 1969, “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies hit #1. And on this day in 2011, one of the century’s biggest – and most bubblegum-sounding – singles came out : “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Love it or hate it, soon there was no escaping the song that was everywhere. The Village Voice put it best by calling it “utterly earwormy.”

Jepsen was by then a 25 year old former barista and Canadian College of Performing Arts student from the Vancouver area. She’d risen to minor fame in Canada being a contestant on Canadian Idol in 2007 (she finished third) and putting out a moderately well-received slightly folkish album, Tug of War.

Fast forward to 2011 and she began working on a new record for the small local 604 Records label. “Call Me Maybe” was one of the first things she’d come up with, writing it with her friend Tavish Crowe. She said the song was “basically a pickup (line). What person hasn’t wanted to approach somebody before and stopped, because it’s scary.” They wrote it as a relatively folk-countryish tune originally but brought in multi-instrumentalist Josh Ramsay, of underground alt rock band Mariana’s Trench, who “helped us pop-ify it.” That he did, as well as between him and Crowe, playing guitars, bass, drums and synthesizers on the now upbeat ditty.

It was the lead single on the Canadian EP Curiosity, which was soon added to and made into a full album, Kiss, which was put out in the States, first on the small Schoolboy label, then when the single took off, being picked up by Interscope. And take off it did.

First it began to get airplay in Canada, which drew the attention of fellow Canuck teen-sensation Justin Bieber, and his then girlfriend Selena Gomez. Both raved about the song on social media and it really took off, no “maybe” about it. Soon it got to #1 at home…and in the U.S., where it spent nine weeks on top, and in the UK, Australia, France…18 countries in all. In an age of diminishing sales of music, it went through the roof (largely through downloads on sites like I-tunes), going diamond in both Canada and the U.S., and 15X platinum Down Under where it was the biggest-seller of 2012. When all it was said and done it had sold “maybe” 18-20 million copies. So far, it’s been streamed 895 million times on Spotify. It was the first #1 song by a Canadian female since Avril Lavigne had scored one in 2007 and is presently the biggest-selling single by any female so far in the 21st Century.

Of course, a song as popular as that would find other sources of fame. “Call Me Maybe” was popular for lip-synching videos, which included American Air Force personnel in Afghanistan. Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster put his own spin on it, singing “Share It Maybe.” It seemed it was everyone’s “guilty pop pleasure,” as VH1 termed it.

Although she’s kept busy singing and at times acting, and has had a couple of chart hits since, she’s never come close to the level of mega-success she had from this single. But she has a new album due next month. She could be back on top soon…”maybe.”