January 31 – Blondie Found High Tides Soon Ebb

What do you get when you put a Big Apple punk group in Hollywood and have them listen to some music of the Islands? Well, in 1981, the answer was a major #1 hit – “The Tide is High” by Blondie. It topped the charts this day 42 years ago. It was their third American #1 in less than two years.

Of course, calling Blondie a “punk” band is misleading even though many, if not most, music writers and radio people of the day did just that. Despite their CBGB origins in New York, they’d become a fairly talented bunch of players who’d scored major success with songs that varied from straight-out disco (“Call Me”, “Heart of Glass”) to pure pop (“Sunday Girl”) to good ol’ fashioned rock & roll (“One Way or Another”). That in mind, “The Tide is High” might not have been so surprising.

The song was a cover of a 1967 song by Jamaican reggae/rocksteady band The Paragons. It hadn’t received a lot of attention, likely even on their own island, since it was a b-side of a single. But somehow it ended up on a Jamaican music compilation cassette that Blondie’s Deborah Harry & Chris Stein found when holidaying in England. They both liked it straight away and decided to record it.

It made its way onto their fifth album (and third since becoming popular at home in North America), Autoamerican. They’d decided to make some changes for that record, including recording it in L.A., something Chris Stein didn’t like but producer Mike Chapman insisted upon. Drummer Clem Burke on the other hand said it “was fun! We got to spend two months in California.”

They also decided to expand their musical horizons, for better or worse, with an old 1920s-style crooner (“Here’s Looking At You”) , a rap-based song (“Rapture”, the follow-up single and their final #1 hit in many places) besides this tropical-sounding effort. Stein liked the band The Specials and asked them to play with Blondie on it, but they declined. So instead they brought in some extra session players including a trio of percussionists and some unfortunately uncredited horn players to add authenticity.

The album did well, but not as well as the previous pair of hits, going platinum in the U.S., UK and Canada. “The Tide is High” led the way being a #1 hit not only in the U.S. but Canada, the UK and New Zealand as well. It came close, top 5, in most other “Western” countries like Ireland and Australia. It earned them their sixth gold single in Britain and third platinum one in Canada.

However, their time in the sun was running out, figuratively and literally. After “Rapture”, they struggled to get noticed for years and Debbie Harry went solo by the end of 1982, leaving the band on a 15-year break.

One curious bit of trivia about “The Tide is High.” It knocked John Lennon out of the #1 slot which his “Starting Over” had been at for five weeks. That seemed fitting because according to Sean Lennon, it was the one modern track his dad really liked just before his death. He said John “played (it) constantly…when I hear that song, I see my father, unshaven, his hair pulled back into a ponytail, dancing to and fro in a worn out pair of denim shorts with me at his feet.”

Advertisement

January 30 – U2 Won New Fans & Taught A Little History

Today’s music history lesson is a real history lesson, and not a very happy one at that. This was the day of the “Bogside Massacre” in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, aka “Bloody Sunday” which inspired the U2 song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”

Most of the island of Ireland, including Dublin (from whence U2 and Guinness beer arose) is a separate country, largely Catholic in nature. However, the island was partitioned in 1921, and Northern Ireland is considered part of Great Britain and is largely Protestant. These differences have caused decades of discontent with tension between the religions and between those who are allied to “Eire” vs. those loyal to the Crown in London. By the late ’60s, a movement had arisen in the north to cut the cord to the UK and join the rest of the island in a united Ireland and violent conflicts had become common. In August, 1971 Britain began a law called “internment without trial” for Northern Ireland, which allowed their police or troops to arrest people simply suspected of being violent or subversive, without charging them. Obviously, this didn’t sit well with the locals and between the time the law was passed and the end of the year, over 30 British troops were killed in street violence there, seven of them in Londonderry (or just “Derry” as the locals know it), the district’s second-largest city. Catholics tended to despise Protestants and vice versa; the British Army were present and essentially at war with the upstart IRA.

All this led to the Civil Rights March planned for this day. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association wanted to protest “internment without trial” and parade from the Catholic “Bogside” area of town to the city’s main public area, Guild Hall Square. The British government was willing to allow the march through the Catholic area of the city but ordered the Army in to prevent the protestors from getting close to the civic square. The day began reasonably well enough, thousands of protestors (estimates vary from 3000 to 30 000) started out calmly enough until they encountered a barricade of Army paratroopers and vehicles blocking their path. the majority of them turned and headed in the direction the government wanted them to, but some confronted the troops… and the bedlam and bloodshed began.

The marchers hurled insults and possibly a few rocks at the armed forces who in turn turned water cannons on and fired tear gas at the “rebels.” Knowing when they were beaten, the protestors turned around and ran away, presumably to rejoin the rest of the marchers. That should have been the end of it, but alas it wasn’t. The Army gave chase, shooting at the retreating mob, in the end hitting 26 of them, 14 fatally. Another pair were run down by the armored vehicles. Later studies showed at least 100 shots were fired by them after Army HQ issued a “ceasefire” order.

The result was inevitable. Violence escalated across Northern Ireland and the violent, terrorist to some, IRA grew immensely in popularity. The British government ordered an inquiry, The Widgery Tribunal, which did find soldiers acted in a way “bordering on the reckless” but essentially exonerated them. However, another investigation they launched in 1998, The Seville Inquiry, took a dozen years to complete but in the end slammed the Army.

It said they “lost control” and “concocted lies in their attempts to hide their acts”, discrediting soldiers’ stories about being fired at first (something no witnesses, including journalists present ever corroborated and was not backed by any physical evidence.) It concluded that those shot weren’t posing “a threat of causing death or serious injury” to the soldiers and said the incident was unjustified. The Londonderry coroner of the day also concurred, saying “it was quite unnecessary… it strikes me the Army ran amok that day and shot people without thinking.”

As a result of the inquiry, Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for the British actions.

Not surprisingly, the slaughter enraged many artists too. A number of plays and books have been written about it and only two days after it happened, Paul McCartney had written and recorded a song about it , “Give Ireland back to the Irish.” The BBC promptly banned it.

Also not surprisingly, it had a major impact on the members of U2, who were school kids at the time. The politically-outspoken band wrote “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in summer 1982 for their third album, War. The album came out in early 1983 to critical accolades. Rolling Stone suggested “the songs here stand up against anything on The Clash’s London Calling” and gave it a 4 star out of 5 rating and it enhanced their reputation and profile in North America. War went on to be their biggest album to that point, being certified multi-platinum in the US and Canada as well as in the UK. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was released as a single in March of that year and while not as big a hit as “New Year’s Day”, it became one of their signature songs. The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame picked it as one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock’n’Roll” and Time listed it as one of the top ten protest songs of all-time. U2 play it at almost every concert, typically with Bono opening the song by shouting “this is not a rebel song.” Bono apparently re-wrote the original lyrics The Edge had written to make it less specific to the events of the one day. Drummer Larry Mullen explained why in a 1983 interview: “We’re into politics of people, we’re not into politics. People are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we’re saying ‘why? what’s the point?’… let’s forget the politics, let’s stop shouting at each other and sit around the table and talk about it.”

That day hasn’t come to fruition yet, but at least Northern Ireland is a calmer place of late. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 acknowledged the differing concepts of what Northern Ireland could be and gave it some level of autonomy as well as the right to secede entirely from Britain if it chose to. The violence of the IRA has largely subsided and been evolved into political discussions so there’s hope there’ll never be a repeat of the events of Bloody Sunday. And perhaps, in a small way, we have U2 to thank for that.

Sometimes rock is more than just music.

January 28 – Now Came 38 Years Ago For Angsty Generation

We’re not getting any younger, and it would seem neither is our music!” Generation X’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’” turns 38 today. The lengthy and moody “How Soon Is Now?” was put out as a single by The Smiths this day in 1985. And like many other cultural milestones, its importance took awhile to really be clear.

Even the band – or else their record label, Rough Trade (on this side of the ocean, Sire/Warner Bros. had them but they were on the small indie label in their native land) – didn’t seem aware of how good the song was. It was first released a in fall ’84… as a b-side to the single “William It Was Really Nothing”, which seems quite forgettable now. It was then included in Hatful of Hollow, the unusual second album from the Manchester quartet. Unusual because after only one regular album, they came out with Hatful… which was really a compilation album of standalone singles they’d released, b-sides and live recordings from appearances on the BBC’s John Peel show. It was only when fans began going crazy for it and radio began spinning it that the record company decided they had a potential hit and put it out as a single. Even then they struggled to get it right. While the full-length 6:45” version was released on a 12” single (and later a CD single), the song was shorn of much of the remarkable guitarwork for the 7” single, which was only about half as long.

Perhaps the greatness of the song was overlooked at first by those close to the band because it was atypical of the Smiths. Generally known for short, snappy pop songs driven by straight-ahead jangly guitars; their first British hit “This Charming Man” rather set a basic template for them. This song however, was lengthy, atmostpheric,slower and echo-ey. the music was composed by their outstanding guitarist Johnny Marr, who had a simple – well, rather difficult really – goal in mind: “I wanted an intro that was almost as potent as ‘Layla’”, he said. Among his inspirations for it, surprisingly, were Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley’s “It’s All Right.”

With his bandmates, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, they came up with the music, at that time called “Swamp.” Noteworthy was that for whatever reason, Marr ditched his normal Rickenbacker guitar for it in favor of a Les Paul model. Anyway, when that was done, producer John Porter earned his keep and then some. He decided it would sound better with a bit of reverb and effects. So he and Marr went through a process “that took an eternity,” to make it sound like the song we know. They ran the recording of the guitarwork and ran it through three amps simultaneously, with tremolo or vibrato set to different levels on each and recorded the resultant other-worldly echoing sounds. Not so easy to do, but well worth it!

Enter singer Morrissey a few days later who essentially improvised the nakedly honest, depressed lyrics. The first line, “I am the son, and the heir”, were inspired by a George Eliot novel he was reading that refers to a lad “born the son of a Middlemarsh manufacturer and heir to nothing in particular.” He did the song in just two takes, and Marr was in awe. “when he sang ‘of a shyness that is criminally vulgar’, I knew he’d hit the bullseye.”

Indeed he did. Marr recently correctly assessed that it was “our most enduring record. It’s most people’s favorite, I think.” What it wasn’t necessarily, was a smash hit. Although it did their fifth #1 hit on the British Indie chart in just two years (by the end of the decade and their career, they’d score 14 of those), overall it only got to #24 in the UK. Years later it would return to the charts and make it to #16 there. It also was a top 5 in Ireland, but in most other places, nada.

On our side of the ocean, the single didn’t sell much at all and since Sire didn’t bother releasing Hatful of Hollow at the time in North America, fans who wanted it on an album had to wait until it was tacked onto the next Smiths album, Meat is Murder. But even though it wasn’t getting played next to Michael Jackson or Huey Lewis on American hit radio, it had its rabidly loyal fans and quickly became a staple on college radio and the few pioneering alternative rock ones around. CMJ in fact logged it as the fifth most-played song of the ’80s on U.S. college radio stations while in L.A., KROQ ranked it as the 22nd top song of 1984. Toronto’s CFNY was even more enthusiastic. In 1999, they ranked it as the second-best song – ever. (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the one that topped it, in case you were wondering.)

The song was adopted as the anthem of a generation of disaffected, lonely youth and was described by British journalist Louise Segrue as “a triumph thanks to Marr’s genius layering of sliding and oscillating vibrato guitar…and Morrissey’s defiantly anti-pop lyrics.” Or more simply, as allmusic call it, a “masterpiece.”

If the song sounds familiar to you…but not quite, you may have watched a lot of TV last decade. Psychedelic Furs-spinoff Love Spit Love recorded a cover version of it in the ’90s for the movie The Craft which was later used as a theme song for the TV series Charmed.

January 27 – People Couldn’t Bear It If It Really Was Edward’s Last Song

A few years before Rush took flight, another Toronto trio was having a decent, if short, run in the sun. On this day in 1973, Edward Bear had their first song hit the U.S. top 40… oddly enough with a ditty called “Last Song.”

Bear had begun in the Ontario city some six years earlier, playing many of the same cafes and clubs Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot frequented, and got signed by Capitol Records in 1969. It was pretty much the brainchild of Larry Evoy, the band’s main writer, singer and drummer. He got the name from a Winnie the Pooh book; the careful reader of A.A. Milne will find that Pooh’s real name is “Edward Bear.” Evoy’s pop interests were counter-weighted by the original guitarist, bluesy Danny Marks and a jazz-inspired keyboardist, Paul Weldon. Although their early sound was blues-rocky enough to have them open for Led Zeppelin once, Marks left the band early on and the band soon found a niche with soft rock tunes that largely populated their four albums.

they found great success in their native Canada in the early-’70s, where “Last Song” was actually their fifth top 30 hit out of seven eventually. It was however, their only #1 hit in Canada (spending two weeks on top before being bumped out by Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”) and their only sizable international hit, making it up to #3 in the U.S. and #2 in Australia. Evoy says the inspiration came to him easily: “it was literal. I would go to sleep with my light on, hoping she’d think I was still awake and would drop by.” The next single, the apparent sequel, “Close Your Eyes” was another big hit in Canada but only made it to #37 Stateside, and soon after Edward Bear went into permanent hibernation.

Weldon went on to become a successful architect and graphic artist; Marks a respected blues guitarist and eventually a radio host with a nationwide show playing jazz and blues. He remembers the Bear days. “The real danger of being so big, so young was that it seemed too easy,” he says noting at the time he was surprised that after Bear he was soon “playing every strip joint on Yonge Street” in Toronto and known as “the king of chicken wing bars.”

As for Evoy, he and his wife run a horse farm in Ontario and he also is in charge of the Edward Bear catalog and publishing rights. “In the States, where all those oldie goldies stations keep playing our songs, it’s almost a full-time occupation,” he says, adding “it’s wonderful to know that our songs still have this life so many years after they were recorded.”

January 24 – A Tale Of Two Delilahs

Sometimes someone only barely peripherally involved in your life can turn it around. Such was the case of one Delilah DiCrescenzio on Tom Higgenson’s life, it would seem.

Higgenson was the leader of a struggling Chicago-area band who happened to see Delilah through a friend of a friend. “I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, “ he recalled. “I told her ‘I have a song about you’.” He didn’t at the time, but he soon did. She was apparently not impressed enough to dump her boyfriend for him… but the situation worked out well for Higgenson nonetheless.

Higgenson’s band is the Plain White T’s, a band he formed in 1997 with a couple of high school friends. Higgenson was early on the driving force in the T’s, being their lead singer, guitarist , main writer and in time, keyboardist when required.

They signed to an indie label, Fearless, and put out their first album in 2000. a rather forgettable and almost unnoticed piece called Come on Over. However, on this day in 2005 the tide began to change a little for them with the release of their third album, All That We Needed, an album that drew decent reviews. Allmusic for instance, rated it 4-stars and referenced Tom Petty and Big Star in its review, noting they sounded like Jimmy Eats World wannabes less than in the past. That in itself might not have counted for much for the T’s were it not for that one song Tom wrote for Delilah, the last track on the record. “Hey There Delilah” was by most accounts, their best song by far to that point … and the one that got their career jump-started. It didn’t happen overnight however.

The song, and the album, did almost nothing in 2005. The one significant thing it did though was garner interest from Disney, of all people, who signed them onto their major-distribution Hollywood label. Their debut on that label, Every Second Counts came out the next year, with a remixed version of “Hey There Delilah” on it. Things took off of course; with the album hitting the top 10 at home and in Ireland and the single becoming omnipresent in 2007, hitting #1 in the U.S. and Canada and #2 in the UK. The song about the optimistic high schooler who was gonna win the girl and the good life with his guitar fit almost every contemporary radio format, it seemed, and went 4X platinum in the States – their biggest hit to date by a long stretch. So popular was it that the first album it showed up on, All that We Needed began to sell and eventually went gold for them despite never charting at all on Billboard.

The T’s carry on to this day, to less mainstream success. They had one more top 40 hit, “1,2,3,4” in 2008 and put out their eighth album in 2018, on the same Fearless label that they started out on. These days Higgenson says that writing is his favorite part of the whole musical experience and that their roots in Chicago kept them down to earth and made them who they are. Which would seem to be pretty good guys, at least in his case. He was in the news this month when he gave a surprise performance of the song to an eight year old girl name Delilah who was undergoing cancer treatment and happened to love the song.

As for Delilah of the song… well, she did attend the Grammys with Higgenson in 2008 (their song lost out to Amy Winehouse for Song of the Year, but she and he apparently don’t keep in touch. Drummer De-mar Hamilton says “She does like the song though!” Apparently millions of others do too!

January 24 – O’Jays, And All Of Us Too

I love music, you love music (or else you probably wouldn’t be reading this) and the O’Jays love music too. Or at least their 1975 hit tells us that. “I Love Music” peaked at #5 on Billboard this day 48 years ago.

The O’Jays are one of the longest-running vocal groups around, having being formed by a group of high school friends in Ohio in 1958. Their lineup’s changed through the years, as one would expect, but remarkably has had Eddie Levert and Walter Williams as constants through the decades; Levert’s in his 80s now! They put out their first single in 1960, and had minor success during the ’60s on the R&B charts, but never made it big until they looked east and signed with Philadelphia International records, home to the Philly soul sound and home to artists like Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Billy Paul and Patti Labelle. Their first single on that label, “Backstabbers” went to #3 and earned them their first gold single. By the time this single came around in the middle of the decade, it was their fifth top 10 hit and fourth gold single – besides “Backstabbers” they also had “Love Train” and “For the Love of Money”. Their popularity on the R&B charts jumped as well – after having just one top 10 on that specialty list before Philadelphia, they’d score eight in a little over three years!

Like most of their other hit songs (and in fact, most of the hits found on that record label), it was written and produced by the under-rated duo of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who ran the company. And like most hits on Philadelphia International, the artists sang while the music was created by a somewhat anonymous group of session players known as “MFSB”. That outfit had their own hit a year before “I Love Music” with the instrumental disco hit “TSOP” – short for The Sound of Philadelphia.

They’d go on to have one more major hit three years later, 1978’s “Useta Be My Girl” but while hits dried up somewhat in the ’80s, they kept on singing and have had a bit of an uptick in their popularity this century. They were named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 , and the Vocal Group Hall of fame before that. As well, their 1974 gold single “For the Love of Money” was used as the theme for the TV reality show The Apprentice featuring a pre-presidential Donald Trump. They got to appear on the show and sing it one time; we don’t know if the host was aware the song was derived from the Biblical reference to the love of money being the root of all evil. But we do have an idea of how the O’Jays feel about it now… in 2016 they sent a “cease and desist” order to Trump to try and prevent him from using their music at his rallies or in ads.

If you’d like to see if they still have what it takes, you’re in luck. They plan to tour later this year, although they have titled that tour “the Last Stop”, saying it will be their final go-round.

January 23 – The “Dawn” Of A New Star Act

A mystery group knocked George Harrison out of the #1 spot on the Billboard singles chart this day in 1971. Dawn’s first hit, “Candida” had been knocking on the door of the top spot a couple of months earlier, but they hit the jackpot with “Knock Three Times”. It spent three weeks on top and ended up among the year’s top 10 hits…and put the trio, who’d soon be known as Tony Orlando & Dawn, on the map.

Now you might wonder why I referred to them as a “mystery group.” You might wonder, it you listen to old re-runs of Casey Kasem American Top 40s from that period, why he’d name “Frank Spinelli” as the singer and refer to them as being from Philadelphia – they actually came from New York City. Well, turns out it was all part of a ruse perpetrated by Orlando. He was an employee of Columbia Records, being a staff producer and low-level executive there. But he’d had a marginally successful career as a singer in the ’60s, and with his job, he had access to a lot of incoming music. He’d heard a demo of the song “Candida” and thought it was a sure-fire hit. But he couldn’t get anyone else excited about it, so he decided to record it himself, with a couple of female backup singers. More surprising, despite his career, it seemed Columbia wouldn’t release his record…but rival Bell Records would. So he signed with them, but fearing legal ramifications of a possible conflict of interest, he decided to try to be anonymous, so he put out the album, including “Candida” and this track, under the name Dawn. Even the backing singers was a bit of a mystery. They’d soon be a well-known trio of Orlando, Joyce Wilson and Telma Hopkins. But, apparently for this and at least some of the songs first recorded on the record, Wilson and Hopkins hadn’t joined yet and it was actually Linda November and Toni Wine singing. Wine had a piece of another big early-’70s hit too, she was the main female voice on the Archies “Sugar Sugar.” And not uncommon for the time period, the actual band members playing the instruments for Dawn were not listed, though it’s a good guess to suspect it was the band The Tokens, since three of its members produced the record and they were friends of Tony’s.

Knock Three Times” was written by L.Russell Brown and Irwin Levine, who said they’d been inspired by city life and the song “Up on the Roof”, which Dawn also recorded. The idea was a shy man infatuated with an downstairs neighbor in an apartment building, who suggested she knock three times on her floor if she was interested.

Certainly the public were. “Crash” Craddock quickly recorded a cover version which went to #3 on country charts, while Dawn ruled the airwaves of late-winter 1970-71 with their version. Not only was it a #1 in the States, but also in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and several other countries, eventually going platinum in several lands and selling past six million copies, making it to this day one of the 300 top-selling singles ever according to Billboard.

Soon Orlando was uncovered as the singer, and they changed their name to Tony Orlando & Dawn for their next album. They were immensely popular for several years, scoring another #1 in 1975 with “He Don’t Love You” and an even bigger one in 1973 with “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around The Old Oak Tree”, also written by Brown and Levine and also selling over six million copies and ranks among Billboard‘s top 100 of all-time. And if you grew up in the ’70s, you probably remember them from TV. As with so many other family-friendly groups, they had their own TV variety show, from 1974 to ’76. In fact, it was brought in as a replacement for Sonny & Cher’s own show.

Now, lest you think it was unfortunate that this song knock out “My Sweet Lord” as the #1 song, just consider the song which eventually replaced “Knock Three Times” out of the top spot – “One Bad Apple” by the Osmonds. We’ll leave it to you to figure out whether “One Bad Apple” was one good record or not!

January 23 – Clash Rocked The Cashbox (And Billboard) 40 Years Ago

In the early-’90s, the world of pop music was thrown for a loop when “alternative” rock became so popular it was suddenly really the mainstream music. A decade earlier though, it was happening on a slightly smaller scale. On this day in 1983, those angry, political punks from Britain, The Clash, were having their finest hour in America and in so doing, standing toe to toe with such decidedly-mainstream artists as Phil Collins and the J. Geils Band. “Rock the Casbah” peaked at #8 in the U.S. 40 years ago.

Three years after they first hit the U.S. airwaves with the similarly upbeat-sounding “Train in Vain” , “Rock the Casbah” quickly became their biggest hit there. That was fitting perhaps since it was recorded in New York, not their home base of London. In the UK meanwhile, at the time it only got up to #30, making it only their sixth-biggest single to that point, although oddly it would make it up into the top 20 in 1991 there around the same time another single from the same album, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” got to #1 there after being used in a Levis TV ad.

The single helped The Clash and their Combat Rock album break through into the American market in a big way, going double-platinum; at home the sales were below London Calling and about on a par with their other three previous albums. What it wasn’t though was representative of British punk rock, nor of The Clash’s sound necessarily, although on their previous couple of records – London Calling and Sandinista – they’d experimented with enough different music genres as to not have a “sound” beyond the gruff vocals of Joe Strummer tying it all together.

The fun, dancy tune is atypical of The Clash in another way. It was the only track written and performed largely by drummer Topper Headon. He had the piano melody in his head and ended up in the studio hours before the other three in the band, so he recorded away, doing the piano work, then his drums and even bass before Strummer heard it. the singer later acknowledged “the real genius of ‘Rock the Casbah’ is Topper.”

What wasn’t necessarily genius was Topper’s lyrics, about his girlfriend, and depending on which person close to the band you ask, either very “sappy” or rather “pornographic.” Strummer looked at them, tossed the lyric sheet in the garbage and started on the witty geopolitical statement we know. The song which gloriously showcases the Middle Eastern dichotomy of both a fascination with and a hostility towards American pop culture was something Strummer had in his mind for awhile. The lyrics had begun falling into place when he’d seen a documentary on Iran, and in an interview aired on I-heart Radio, he said he was astounded to find that having a bottle of Jack Daniels there could get one “forty lashes.” “I was trying to say ‘fundamentalism is nowhere, man’”. Around the same time, manager Bernie Rhodes was complaining to him that his songs were getting increasingly like “ragas” – long, complex Indian musical pieces, which is where that word in the lyrics originated.

CBS Records sensed it had a hit on its hands and remixed it as a single with more bass and the extended vocal bit on the word “jive”, then sent the band to Texas to record the armadillo-featuring video which became an early favorite on MTV.

There were a couple of ironies in the success of “Rock the Casbah.” First, while it was more the work of Headon than any other Clash song, he’d been fired from the group by the time it began its run up the charts. Headon had deepening drug problems which curtailed his ability to perform and didn’t sit well with Strummer. So Topper doesn’t even appear in the video.

More galling to much of the fanbase, is that the U.S. military adopted the song as an unofficial theme or anthem for the 1991 Operation Desert Storm (the mini-war to free Kuwait from Iraq’s grip.) The left-wing band surely never expected their music to be the soundtrack to an American military operation and as one journalist quipped, “the notion of The Clash as spokesfolk for (military) adventurism in the Middle East might have been enough to bring Joe Strummer back from the dead.”

The Clash rocked the casbah, but didn’t rock very much of anything after. Strummer was also getting tired of guitarist Mick Jones as well and perhaps was getting weary of the Clash altogether. They recorded only one more album, 1985’s under-achieving and critically-panned Cut the Crap. That one lacked Jones, Headon and had only a passing involvement from bassist Paul Simonon but did have their business manager in charge of drum machines and production. After that, Strummer knew it was time to move on and leave the band’s legacy alone.

January 22 – Al Took Us To Another Place, Another Time

The year after the “Year of the Eagle” (the Bicentennial) was the year of the cat? Could be, since Al Stewart‘s lush record hit the American Top 40 on this day in 1977, his first significant radio hit.

The Scottish-born folkie had already put out six albums after his 1966 debut single (“The Elf” which had Jimmy Page playing guitar on it but sold a lofty 496 copies!) prior to his RCA Records debut, Year of the Cat. He became a part of the burgeoning British folk scene in the mid-’60s and was a friend of Cat Stevens and briefly the roommate of Paul Simon! Pretty good foundation for learning to write songs, one would think. The album was recorded at Abbey Road studios and produced by Alan Parsons, a pretty good set of ingredients to add to the recipe of making a hit. The album contained the popular song “On the Border”, but its real standout was the exotic title track. As Stewart later told a Toronto radio station, “if this isn’t a hit, then I can’t make a hit.”

Turns out he could; the single got to #8 on Billboard, and the album went platinum in the U.S. In Canada, it hit #3 yet in his homeland, it missed the top 30 – like all his songs have! He’d score an even higher chart hit the following year with “Time Passages”, but the song about the mysterious woman in the country where they turn back time remains his best-loved and best-known track. It was the only song on the album that he didn’t write entirely by himself. This one is co-credited to Peter Wood, his touring keyboardist at the time (and later a touring member of Pink Floyd during The Wall years.) Green played a piano riff every soundcheck and Stewart says “after I heard it about 14 times, I said ‘you know, there’s something about that. It sounds kind of haunting and nice. Can I write some lyrics to it?” But finding the right lyrics was a bit of a challenge. He tried ones about a comedian who commit suicide and Princess Anne and her horse, but nothing felt right. He says “I had a girlfriend at the time and she had a book on Vietnamese astrology, which is kind of obscure. It was open at the chapter called ‘The Year of the Cat’…I recognize a song title when I see it, and that was a song title.” He was right, and after some unsuccessful lyrics about a tabby that made him crabby, he settled in to watch Casablanca and let his imagination run wild until he had the lyrics that made him a part of music history. The history buff has also referenced everything from Stalin and WWII to Nostradamus in his songs. He continues playing music to this day

January 21 – Chart Finale 2 : Going Out With A Bang

Eleven years to the day after one of the big alt rock bands of the ’80s launched what would be their final top 40 American hit onto the charts (The Police with “Wrapped Around Your Finger” which we looked at on today’s other post), another one of the biggies of the ’80s alt rock scene did the same. R.E.M. hit the U.S. top 40 for the final time this day in 1995 with “Bang and Blame.”

Which is surprising given that they were red-hot at the time and we often look back at the ’90s as being the decade when “alternative” rock became the dominant, mainstream version of it. And while it might have been true of album-buyers and the thriving number of alt-rock based radio stations, it probably wasn’t so true of mainstream radio nor the diminishing number of consumers who were still buying physical singles, be they vinyl or CD types.

Bang and Blame” followed “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” as the second single off the band’s Monster album, which took many by surprise given that it was loud, brash and grunge-inspired, following on the heels of two, well “monster”-selling largely acoustic records, Out of Time and Automatic for the People. Part of that was the desire to do a large tour for the record, something they hadn’t done since the ’80s, and wanting some new songs fitting a big sports stadium type show befitting a band Rolling Stone at the time described as “one of the most successful on the planet.” A mantel which might have been weighing heavily on Michael Stipe who still didn’t adore the spotlight, at least when off-stage. The same magazine, in its review of the album chided “Bang and Blame” for beginning to “sound not unlike the proverbial rock star, whining about all those fans who just won’t let (Michael Stipe) alone.” Cashbox looked at it more positively, declaring “the propulsive rhythm of this track should also prove enticing even to non-fans.” Interestingly, it’s the only R.E.M. song where Michael Stipe’s sister, Lynda, is credited, as a backing vocalist.

It seemed they were right, the rhythm, imaginative, split-screen, fast-changing video and sing-along chorus made it their last overall big American hit, getting to #19. It became their fifth to top the Billboard Alternative Rock chart. Elsewhere, the reaction was better as their fanbase seemed to shift outside their nation’s borders. It got to #15 in the UK but in Canada was a #1 song. More to that point, while it was their last top 40 at home, they’d score ten more in Canada over the following decade and a remarkable 17 more in Britain before calling it quits in 2011.