May 24 – Gill’s First Merging Of Country & Rock

Having a sound that doesn’t quite fit a regular “category” of music easily is sometimes a risky proposition – it’s easy for good music to “fall through the cracks”, such as a “too rock for easy listening, too easy listening for rock” sort of thing. Occasionally though it works very well and catches on all over. Such was the case this day in 1980, when the Pure Prairie League hit the American top 40 for the third time with what would become their biggest hit, “Let Me Love You Tonight.”

The Pure Prairie League had formed in rural southern Ohio a decade earlier, and playing music that fell somewhere between rock and country, signed to RCA in 1972, around the time they picked Cincinnati as their base. Their eponymous debut album was noteworthy mostly for having a Norman Rockwell painting on the cover, featuring a cowboy named “Luke.” Luke ended up being rather a mascot for the band, and appeared on almost every subsequent record cover they put out. However, their second album, Bustin’ Out, had a minor hit, “Amie” on it that garnered a little attention. That one took a couple of years to catch on and only rose to #27, but curiously has become a radio standard on many classic rock stations despite its very country-ish sound.

By 1980, they’d signed with Casablanca Records and no original member remained for their ninth studio album, Firin’ Up. But they’d had an important addition to the lineup – Vince Gill. Gill quickly became their main songwriter, lead singer as well as a guitarist, banjo and mandolin player for them and sang this biggie for them. It was one of the few songs of theirs from that time period which he didn’t write though, with a trio of Greer, Wilson and Woodard getting the credit. The Wilson was Jeff, a guitarist in the band at the time, while the other two are seemingly anonymous names in the music world. Anonymous, but at least ones who had a hand in a big hit.

David Sanborn added some tasteful sax to the single, which was surprisingly the third which Casablanca released from the album; the first “I Can’t Stop the Feelin’” was a flop but the second, “I’m Almost Ready” squeaked into the top 40. “Let Me Love You Tonight” though caught many people’s ear, on both sides of the country/pop divide, hitting #10 and topping Adult Contemporary charts in Canada as well as their homeland.

Allmusic compared them to the Eagles (a wee bit ironic as we’ll see) and Ambrosia and considered the album “a fine example of adult contemporary, rock, and country formats all merging in the 1980s.” Which it was, but their golden time was short. Gill left the band in 1982 and they broke up in ’88 after failing to score any follow-up hits to this one (they have been active again much of the time this century but without Gill or new material).

Gill would be no stranger to hit records though. He’d soon launch a solo career which has earned him 11 platinum albums and a remarkable 22 Grammys so far, and though none of his singles were big crossover hits, six have gone to #1 on Country charts. In 2017, he took advantage of that merging of sounds allmusic spoke of, and joined The Eagles with whom he is currently touring, essentially replacing the late Glenn Frey.

December 19 – Stevens Keeps Shakin’ Up Brit Charts

Currently sitting in the British top 10, a multi-platinum single that’s accrued over a year on the charts…but is almost unknown here in North America. Makes you give your head a shake, doesn’t it…because Shakin’ Stevens is huge in the UK but like Robbie Williams and T-Rex, didn’t have popularity that spanned the oceans. Nevertheless, in jolly ol’, his “Merry Christmas Everyone” is a time-honored holiday tradition.

Stevens, aka Michael Barratt, is a Welsh singer with a career dating back to the tail-end of the ’60s. Specializing in old-ish, retro-sounding music largely reminiscent of the early days of rock, Stevens put out record after record in the ’70s, often with his band the Sunsets, to generally little recognition. That changed with the decade. His first notable hit was “Hot Dog” in 1980 (a Buck Owens cover song, not the Led Zeppelin song of the same name from that year); a year later he scored his first of four UK chart-toppers with “This Ole House”, a song that also went to #1 in Australia and Sweden and gave him his only top 20 appearance in Canada. Like most all of his work, it was ignored in the U.S. however. At home though, he’s put over 30 songs onto the chart, mostly in a short-run in the ’80s…a decade when he had more total weeks on the chart there than any other individual performer.

By 1984 he was an established star there and decided to do a Christmas record. His friend Bob Heatlie wrote “Merry Christmas Everyone” specifically for him. A jaunty, cheery-sounding one, Stevens loved it and they cut it quickly. The writer recalls “I wrote the song in summer, during a heatwave (then we were) dripping in sweat, standing there recording with jingling bells, thinking ‘this is crazy!” Although it seems like there is no detailed info on the recording, his usual band at that time consisted of guitarists Ian Aitken, Roger McKew, bassist Dick Bland, drummer Chris Wyles, and percussionists Frank Ricotti.

The singer knew he had a holiday hit on his hands so he rushed it… to the closet for a year. He admits that his original plan was to put it out before Christmas ’84… until…Bob Geldof and crew. “I thought the song deserved to be a #1, and didn’t want it to be #2” he admits, and realized that there was no way to compete with a song as good and as, shall we say “noble,” as “Do they Know It’s Christmas.” He shelved the song until November ’85.

If that was his desire, his strategy was great. The song did rush to #1 in Britain in ’85, where having a “Christmas #1” is a very big deal as the movie Love Actually depicts surprisingly accurately. The video, festive and featuring his own kids among others was popular. He notes that the “jumper” (sweater) in the video is his own and he just put it on without being told to.  The song spent eight weeks on the UK charts that winter, but has since become a holiday staple there. It’s been to #6 the past three winters (that’s overall, not just on the holiday list ) and has accumulated 83 total weeks, and so far got him his only double-platinum single. His chance of getting back to #1 this year seem slim though; standing in his way are a brand-new Christmas song from Elton John and Ed Sheeran and the titan of good tidings, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey which has spent well over 100 weeks on the British charts.

Inexplicably it has never really caught on in North America, but it has shown up on various Christmas records like Now That’s What I Call Christmas.

February 15 – Sly’s Music Appealed To Everyday People

The good feelings of the “summer of love” were fading away with the ’60s in the U.S., and being replaced to a large degree with anger about the Vietnam War and social justice issues. Music too was changing, and one of the better examples of it, and society changing hit #1 on this day in 1969. “Everyday People” was the first massive hit for the hard-to-pigeonhole Sly & the Family Stone. That was, of course, a San Francisco band built around multi-talented Sly Stone(who wrote and produced the Stand! album from which the single came) and included his sister Rose, brother Freddie and several other talented musicians who blended rock, soul and psychedelia.

As Clive Davis recalled, “Sly was leaping over boundaries on so many fronts. The band was inter-racial (the first major American pop act to be integrated), and included both men and women.” Davis admired Stone, who was on the Epic label he ran at the time, saying “Sly was so vibrant and alive… the hardest working artist I’d ever seen.”

Although they’d scored a decent hit at the start of their career in 1967, with “Dance to the Music”, it took this song and Stand! , their fourth album, to let them really break through and become household names and platinum-selling artists. “Everyday People” echoed the positive attitude Sly exuded at the time, suggesting that we need peace and equality and could use music towards that end. It was noteworthy for introducing the phrase “different strokes for different folks” into our lexicon and for the bass-playing of Larry Graham, who considers it the first example of “slap” bass.

The song spent 4 weeks at #1 and was the 5th biggest hit of the year in the States. In Canada, it got to #2 while over in the UK it just scratched into the top 40. Rolling Stone would recently rank it as their 146th greatest song of all-time, and let Sly explain why his sound was so popular and different. “I was into everyone’s records…I’d play Dylan, Hendrix, James Brown back to back so I didn’t get stuck in any one groove.”

Sly & the band had two more #1s in less than 2 years, “Thank You” and “Family Affair” but their day in the sun was fairly brief. Conflicts within the group as well as outside forces (such as the Black Panthers) urging him to use his celebrity to be more militant, as well as Sly’s spiraling drug use effectively killed the act by the early-’70s.

However, through their brief creative heyday, Sly and the Family Stone opened the eyes and ears of many as to the futility of breaking music – or people- into various different, separate categories never to be mixed.

October 11 – Recalling 2000 For Number 2000

Just a short little blog here to mark the 2000th post so far on A Sound Day! It’s still a blast to do and I want to thank all of you for reading, especially the 180 or more of you who have taken the time to actually subscribe! Thank you, it makes it very worthwhile at this end. And especially thank you to those of you who’ve commented and started some interesting conversations and friendships even through here.

I look forward to the next thousand posts and hope you’ll be along with us for them. To mark the 2000th, I thought why not put on one of my favorite songs of the year 2000. “Drive” by Incubus was released as a single almost exactly 20 years ago this week and would go on to be that band’s biggest hit, their only top 10 in the U.S. and Billboard‘s #1 “alternative rock” song of the following year. Curious trivia on it… it was produced by Scott Litt. It became the second different hit song called “Drive” he’d produce. Eight years earlier he’d done R.E.M.’s song of the same name.

September 7 – People Loved The PSB, ‘Actually’

In the early-’80s, Neil Tennant showed he knew how to write about and review music, with a prominent gig at Britain’s Smash Hits. In the middle of the decade, he set out to show he could make music worthy of being discussed in that magazine too. Together with Chris Lowe, he formed the Pet Shop Boys and had relatively quick success with the hit “West End Girls”. On this day in 1987, they set out to show that was no fluke “actually”, with the release of their second album, Actually.

Like their first album, Please, it was a mix of instantly-catchy songs blending disco and new wave with hooks aplenty resulting in bright singles which seemed as perfectly fitted to the nightclub floors as a morning commute or the office Muzak. And like the predecessor, it came out at home for them on the Parlophone label – one made famous two dozen years earlier by a little band called the Beatles. On this side of the pond, it was a product of EMI Records. But as allmusic note, this time out they seemed a little more focused, a little all-around better, they “perfected their melodic, detached dance-pop.”

Helping with that was their use of outside help producing. While Tennant and Lowe wrote all the songs (largely by themselves), and played the majority of the synths and drum machines, they utilized no fewer than five producers on the record, including high-profile Stephen Hague and Shep Pettibone.

Lyrically, the songs were catchy and initially simple, but keeping in the theme of their earlier hits “West End Girls” and “Opportunities”, they really delivered something of a critique of the class disparity in Britain and most of the songs gave at least a subtle knock of Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing politics. Their was “Shopping” a song so catchy the BBC used it as a theme for some news programs as did shopping networks despite the putdowns “we’re buying and selling your history” and “I heard it in the House of Commons, everything’s for sale.” And there was “Rent”, (“I love you, you pay my rent”), and the two big hits “It’s a Sin” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”

That was the coup d’etat of the work, being co-written with Allee Willis, who’d written Earth Wind & Fire’s “September.” Basically about a person in a dysfunctional relationship they can’t quite leave, it could easily be obliquely applied to the country’s politics. And making it special, singing with the boys was Tennant’s “childhood hero”, Dusty Springfield. She was at first a little reluctant to do the song, but agreed and got her first trip up into the top 10 singles charts on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly two decades. She called the Pet Shop Boys soon after to work with her on her 1990 comeback album, Reputation.

That song made it to #2 in both the UK and U.S., and #3 in Canada, while “It’s A Sin” became their second #1 hit at home (and also in most European countries including Germany) and was a top 10 entry over here. “Rent” gave them a trio of top 10s from the album in their homeland. Overall, the album got to #2 in Britain (they’d finally score a #1 in ’93 with Very) #16 in Canada and #25 in the States. At home, it went 3X platinum, making it their biggest studio album, and it was platinum in Canada. Only in the U.S., where it was just gold, did it lag behind the first one in sales.

No matter what you classify it as, the music was listenable and fun. Even usually crusty Robert Christgau gave it an “A” rating noting “this is actual pop music with something actual to say.” Allmusic rate it 4.5-stars, as good as anything in their catalog. Unfortunately, we don’t know what Smash Hits had to say about their former co-worker’s well, smash hit!

It was a pretty big day for British releases by the way. Along with the Pet shop Boys, Pink Floyd rebounded with their first post-Roger Waters album the same day.

August 14 – Bob Was Freewheelin’ Like A Stone

…meanwhile, the same day in 1965 the Beatles were filming an Ed Sullivan Show and hit the American top 40 with the song “Help”, on the same chart Bob Dylan made the top 40 with what would be his biggest hit, “Like a Rolling Stone.”

The angry, organ-fueled song got to #2 in the States, #3 to the north in Canada and #4 in the UK, making it his biggest single to that point. The organ, by the way, was played by jazz great Al Kooper. The song was perhaps a surprise hit as it clocks in at over six minutes…long by any standards but outrageous for that era. The redoubtable “I’m Henry the VIII I Am” by Herman’s Hermits was the #1 song that week and clocked in at well under two minutes! (Something says we should be thankful that pre-dated the era of extended mixes and 12” singles!)

Although he’s not confirmed it, the rumor is that Bob wrote it about Edie Sedgwick, a famous member of Andy Warhol’s gang of friends, whom The Cult would write a song for some 20 years later. Although Dylan’s 45 didn’t sell quite as much as the Beatles single, it seems to have taken on even more import as time has gone by. Peter Watts of Uncut says it’s the song Dylan fans “usually choose as his best,” and recalls that it “signaled Dylan’s departure from the leg irons of folk and protest.” Bruce Springsteen thought it “sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind,” and Rolling Stone on that same list mentioned above, called it the “Greatest Song of All-time”. They reckon “no other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time. And if you want to read more about it, Greil Marcus wrote a 300-page book just about that one song!

That in itself suggests, hey, this is a song which matters! However, as important as the song might be, it is not responsible for one of rock’s all-time great bands’ name. When this was released, the Rolling Stones had been rocking for almost three years. neither did Dylan write it about them, he says he got the name from a ’50s Hank Williams song which had the line “I’m a rolling stone, all lost and alone.”

August 2 – Roller-skating Magic

She had the “magic” 40 years ago…and the #1 song! Olivia Newton John hit the top in the U.S. for the fourth time this day in 1980 with “Magic.” And like some of her biggest hits of the ’70s, it came from a movie soundtrack. The parallels stop there however, since the ’70s was a blockbuster film (Grease) while this one came from a rather forgettable flick, Xanadu.

Xanadu apparently was an…odd…little story in which ONJ played Kira, a goddess and muse who comes down from the mountain to convince a guy to open up a happening nightclub. That’s a winning script pitch if ever there was one! (One can almost imagine the conference room where that was taking place… “sounds promising, but it’s missing something..”  “how about if the goddess roller-skates?” “Eureka! I Like it!” ) Anyhow, the movie predictably flopped, but the music was pretty good and pretty popular. It was done by her and E.L.O. with both having hits off the soundtrack. In fact the album had one side of Olivia’s music, one side of E.L.O., although they both were on one song on “their” side as well,the title track.

Magic” as well as all her songs from the soundtrack was written and produced by her talented Aussie friend, John Farrar. Farrar had written several of her earlier hits including “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “You’re the One That I Want.” On this record not only did he write and produce, but he also played the guitars, keyboards and added backing vocals. Toto’s David Hungate was brought in for bass and session drummer Carlos Vega did his thing.

The result was a nice, summery, shimmery, soaring pop song that even John Lennon noted he liked. Lots of others did as well, with it spending a month at #1 and being the third-biggest hit of the year in the States. It also made #1 in Canada and the top 5 in Australia and New Zealand, although oddly the UK didn’t warm to it much with it barely scraping into the top 40. Songfacts note the song is more accessible than the movie and we’ll give the final word on it to allmusic: (the album is) “fluff stuff but some pearls float amongst the mire… “Magic” is a fine single (with) easy-going melody and clear vocals.”

January 25 – Hard To ‘Beat’ Being A Cannibal, Andy

If you call him up to wish Andy Cox a happy birthday today, would his phone ring with two-tones? Because the 64 year old guitarist from Birmingham, England was one of the significant figures in Britain’s “two-tone” movement of the late-’70s and early-’80s, a term taken as much from the mixed racial profiles of the bands as the black & white shoes they favored.

Cox was one of the founding members of The Beat (or the English Beat as we knew them in North America) a band which along with Madness and the Specials really put ska front and center on the radio. They had five UK top 10 hits in their brief career; after they broke up in 1983, Cox and David Steele formed their own band. After listening to over 500 singers, they selected Roland Gift and took a name from the 1960 movie All the Fine Young Cannibals.

After playing their first song, “Johnny Come Home” on Jools Holland’s show The Tube, they got a recording deal and put out a successful debut followed by 1988’s massive the Raw and the Cooked, which went multi-platinum in North America and spawned two #1 singles: “She Drives Me Crazy” and “Good Thing” (which Holland played piano on, coincidentally.)  As the LA Times noted, though the Cannibals “may borrow from Motown or Memphis…there’s an original vision.” Like The Beat before, the band’s stature was limited, they broke up after the two releases. Cox has since added his distinctive guitar sound to Japanese singer Yukari Fujiu and her band Cribabi.

January 14 – Letterman Will Be Sending A Card, I Bet

Just a few month’s before Warren, Ohio’s most famous son, Neil Armstrong, walked on the moon, the city’s second-most famous was born. Happy birthday to rock’s hardest-working and maybe nicest drummer , Dave Grohl, born this day in 1969.

We already know a lot about Nirvana and the Foo Fighers, so here’s a few things you might not know about Dave. Like how in 1994, after the death of Kurt Cobain, Tom Petty wanted him to drum for the Heartbreakers. Although that didn’t really pan out, he did back up tom now and again- check out Petty’s appearance on Saturday Night Live that year if you want evidence. He joined Queens of the Stone Age in 2001, while taking a few months off the Foos, and that led to the Queens’ biggest hit –“No One Knows.” Between that song and Foo Fighters tunes, Grohl was a part of the #1 Billboard Modern Rock song for an incredible 17 out of 18 weeks starting in Oct. 2002. Between Nirvana, the Foos, Queens of the Stone Age, he’s been a part of 18 platinum albums and 16 Alternative Rock #1 songs in the U.S.

And let’s not forget that he was in the short-lived, Grammy-winning band Them Crooked Vultures, with John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin! Back on Saturday Night Live, he joined Mick Jagger in 2012 but more exciting to him was working with Paul McCartney… “from one generation to the next, the Beatles will remain the most important rock band”, he says. He played behind Sir Paul in a 2008 concert in Liverpool then at the Grammy awards the following year. He worked with both the late Prince and late David Bowie, and should he ever run out of rock bands to play with, there’s always country! He was drummer for Zac Brown at the 2013 Country Music Awards!

Among Grohl’s best-known, and probably best friends is that “other” Dave, David Letterman. Letterman had the Foo Fighters on his show numerous times, including the first show back after he returned from heart surgery, and more tellingly on his final late night show.

When not behind the drum kit or mic, he’s likely at home with his wife- or driving his three daughters around in a minivan, cringing as they demand to hear Katy Perry and Beyonce. So, yep, Grohl wasn’t the Warren, Ohio person to make history on the moon. But one has to think if anyone ever puts drums on Mars, Dave might be the first person from Ohio or anywhere else to step behind them!

December 27 – Pinder Was Mr. Mellotron

He’s just a singer in a rock and roll band. Well, not exactly but happy 78th birthday to Moody Blues founding member Mike Pinder. Although Pinder did sing a few obscure Moodies tracks, he’s primarily the keyboardist and the guy who brought the mellotron to the world of rock.

He grew up in Birmingham, and joined a local group, El Riot and the Rebels around the beginning of the ’60s. In with him were future Moody Blues bandmates John Lodge and Justin Hayward. He soon became inspired by the Beatles, headed to Germany… but didn’t find Fab Four levels of success. He returned to Britain to work for an electronics company. Streetly was the main maker of mellotrons back then, so no surprise he became proficient with them, and added that to the repetoire of instruments he used when he formed the Moody Blues in 1964. He also was a wiz with pianos, early synthesizers and just about everything else with keys; he could play bass and cello passably well but rarely did in the band.

In the early days, he and Denny Laine (later in Wings) wrote a good chunk of the band’s material, but when Laine left and Justin Hayward and his old friend John Lodge joined, Pinder took a back seat behind the keyboards. He did find time to teach his one time idol John Lennon how to play the mellotron though.

He put out a couple of interesting, but commercially unsuccessful solo records in the ’70s between Moody Blues records, and finally quit the band after their 1978 Octave. From all reports their was no tension but he was tired of the demands of the road and wanted to settle down with his family. That he did, and soon he moved to California to take his electronics know how to Atari, the games company. Maybe Pacman should’ve been blue in color!

He has kept a pretty low profile since, although he joined his bandmates when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His son Daniel, meanwhile, has become of of Hollywood’s more in-demand sound men and music editors.