May 16 – No Dogs In Beach Boys Set

Film-maker Francis Ford Coppola recently suggested you can’t make art without taking risks. We had evidence of that this day in 1966 when one of the truly “classic” albums of the rock era came out – the Beach Boys Pet Sounds. But as good as we now consider the record, it wasn’t without artistic risk. The LP took a turn away from the simple, carefree sound that had dominated the band’s previous 10 albums (released in an astounding four years!) and not everyone was happy with the difference. The band’s own Mike Love, for instance, is said to have called it “S***” and some at their Capitol Records offices didn’t even want to put out the expensive and experimental album.

Pet Sounds was unquestionably Brian Wilson’s pet. He wrote most of the material, produced it and found backing musicians, using the other Boys as little as possible in the eight or so months it took to get the record together (which also cost Capitol some $70 000, a huge amount for the time equivalent to over half a million in this day and age.) Wilson was doing a large amount of drugs, primarily LSD, at the time and having some mental issues which doubtless led to a somewhat sadder and darker sound than the band had produced on previous hits like “I Get Around” and “Surfin’ USA”. Not only was the lyrical content deeper, so too was the quality of the sound and production on now-classics like “Sloop John B”, “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”. Many credit it as the first concept album, something Wilson agrees with… to a degree. “It wasn’t really a song concept album, or lyrically a concept album, it was really a production concept album.” Wilson had two clear inspirations for the concept- the Beatles and Phil Spector. He borrowed heavily from Spector’s huge “Wall of Sound” studio technique and was unabashedly competitive with the Fab Four. After he heard the critically-acclaimed Rubber Soul he decided to up his band’s game. “It was a challenge to me, “ he recalled, “it didn’t make me want to copy them but to be as good.” He told his wife excitedly, “I’m gonna make the greatest rock album ever made.”

Did he succeed? Some would say he did. Although at the time, response was lukewarm at home (it only hit #10 in the U.S., not as good as most of their prior albums) it took off right away in the UK, where it got to #2 and earned them their first platinum record on that side of the ocean. Spencer Davis echoed many there at the time saying “I haven’t spent much time listening to the Beach Boys before, but I’m a fan now…”

Soon many around the world caught up to Davis. It sold to platinum in the U.S. after a few years and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and “Sloop John B” both hit the top 10 singles chart. Retrospective critics have been very appreciative of the band that “bid farewell to the innocent world of the Beach Boys fun-in-the-sun hits” in the words of Rolling Stone. That album twice has listed it as the second greatest album of all-time (both times behind The Beatles Sgt. Pepper…) complimenting its “luxurious sounds… deeply personal songs” which “perfected the idea (that) an album could be more than the sum of its parts.” Q and allmusic both have scored it a perfect 5-star rating and London’s the Times put it at #1 on their list of best albums ever- ahead of Sgt. Pepper. Wilson must love that one!

One last bit of evidence about how good the album was- a song Wilson was working on during the recording, with a 43-piece orchestra, didn’t end up on the album. It eventually was finished and released as a single later on. That song was their biggest hit, “Good Vibrations.

April 16 – Not All Of Styx Said Domo Arigato

Not every hit song is a tremendous asset for its performer, so its fair to expect not all of the guys in Styx were saying “domo arigato” to singer/keyboardist Dennis DeYoung for their hit “Mr. Roboto”. The oddball song peaked at #3 in the U.S. on this day in 1983…but may have torpedoed the group’s future at the same time.

The Chicago rockers by that time had been around for over a decade and become rock radio favorites across the continent. Generally a relatively equal partnership of guitarist Tommy Shaw and DeYoung through the ’70s (with both approximately sharing writing and lead vocals on their albums) , by the early-’80s the balance seemingly was swaying over towards DeYoung. And as guitarist James Young puts it, “Dennis really wanted to do those soft rock, intimate ballads and that was against the grain for me and Tommy Shaw.” Not only intimate ballads (like “Babe”, their only U.S. #1 hit) but experimental things too. Enter Kilroy Was Here.

Their 11th album was a concept album, with the concept coming almost entirely from Dennis. He was mad at the tide turning against rock and towards the Right in the U.S., especially by an Arkansas law which required warning stickers on a number of albums including any that had backwards masking. So he came up with the concept of a rock opera (one can almost hear his bandmates going “uh oh!” at that phrase) set in the future. The government has outlawed rock and is run by The Majority For Moral Music. Kilroy, played by DeYoung is a famous but jailed rock star. Robots – aka “robotos” – guard his prison cell, and long story short, he escapes, meets a young rebel rocker Jonathan, played by Shaw and together they crusade to bring rock back to the masses. He even envisioned a sort of musical play they could perform in the concerts. To add to it, DeYoung’s envisioned future involved a lot more electronic music (and remember who was the keyboard guy in the band) and less guitars.

Now to be fair, it was an odd time for music. Young, flashy acts fond of synthesizers like Thomas Dolby and A Flock of Seagulls were taking off and it was clear a number of fans were growing tired of factory-produced “70s-style arena rock. As Rolling Stone put it, bands like Styx and Journey had the “unenviable position of having to choose between soldiering on as before and risk ending up a dinosaur, or attempting a change of direction that could cost them a sizable chunk” of their fanbase. Clearly, DeYoung wanted the latter and his voice carried the day. And while the same publication panned Kilroy Was Here (“no drama, just self-flattery” and “uninspired” being among their opinions) they did concede that “Mr. Roboto” was “easily the catchiest tune on the album.”

Perhaps the oddest too, with Japanese lyrics mixed in, like “Domo arigato, misuta roboto”, or “Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto!” . Some fans hated it, but enough didn’t – or else enough new ones were won over – to push the song to #3 at home, and get them a gold single. In Canada, it spent two weeks atop the charts, their ninth top 10 hit there (compared to four in the States). Perhaps it’s no surprise that they picked a Canuck, Larry Gowan, to be their lead singer these days.

The song was a hit, but the album, while still going platinum in North America, saw a drop-off in sales, more pronounced over in the UK where it failed to hit the top 50 after having top 10 success on the predecessor, Paradise Theatre. Few were surprised then when Tommy Shaw quit the band when the Kilroy Was Here tour finished.

April 15 – Stones Album The ‘Aftermath’ Of Competition With Beatles?

One of the side-effects of The Beatles incredible run of records in the ’60s was the effect they had on other bands of the era. The Beach Boys were openly competitive with them, and so were the Rolling Stones. They all listened intently to one another’s releases and then tried to one-up them. A good example of that was this day in 1966, when the Rolling Stones put out the British version of the album Aftermath. The American version came out about three months later.

It represented quite a step forward for the Stones in many ways…and not coincidentally, they started working on it just after the Beatles released Rubber Soul. And the expansion of sounds and instruments the Fab Four were beginning to show rubbed off on this one – Brian Jones in particular got musically experimental, playing a sitar on “Paint it Black” and a koto (a Japanese string instrument) on “Take It Or Leave It.” Sound-wise, they began incorporating elements of country and psychedelia in with their traditional blues rock stylings. It was the first they’d recorded in stereo. And there was perhaps just a wee bit more American influence as well; they recorded the album in L.A., and they’d hooked up with Allen Klein to work as their North American manager. Few people in music would end up saying much good about Klein, but in the here and now, he got the band an advance of over $1 million which added to their confidence.

The confidence showed up in the lyrics, which generally followed a theme of sex, anger and power. Many today label it a “misogynistic” record, but at the time, few cared. They focused on the songs, which were among the Stones best to that point – including “I Am Waiting,” “Lady Jane”, “Under My Thumb,” “Mother’s Little Helper” and “Paint it Black.” Sort of. “Paint it Black” was put out as a standalone single in Britain at the time and wasn’t on their copies; it did make it onto the shorter American release which was however, short three other songs. The Brits got 52 minutes of music in all, the lengthiest LP made to that point. (That sort of differentiation between North American and European releases was common at the time; in fact Aftermath was only the fourth Rolling Stones album at home but their sixth on this side of the Atlantic.) There were limits to how much swagger the Stones could display mind you. Their record companies (London Records here and Decca Records in Europe) nixed their plans to call it Could You Walk On Water? …which given the Beatles problems later that year after John Lennon made his more popular than Jesus comments, seemed to be remarkably astute of them. Decca however, spared no superlatives when putting out the record, comparing it to equivalent in importance of Shakespeare or Dickens “for gramaphone records.”

Reviews at the time were positive. Record Mirror figured “the Rolling Stones have on their hands the smash LP of the year,” the NME figured that they were musical “masterminds” and speculated “Mother’s Little Helper” and “Lady Jane” could be massive hits, Robert Christgau figured it was the “only possible challenge to Rubber Soul …for innovation, tightness and lyrical intelligence.” Years later, Entertainment Weekly would grade it “A-”, allmusic gave it a perfect 5-stars, and Pop Matters noted that it “cemented their reputation as a subversive cultural force.” Many would point to it as a significant step towards the psychedelic sounds that so dominated the following few years, and the aggression that would spur on the punk movement a decade later.

Predictions were right. “Mother’s Little Helper” was put out as a single here and made it to #8, oddly they didn’t release it as a 7” in the UK. “Paint it Black” was a worldwide hit, their sixth #1 in Britain and third #1 hit in the States and Canada. The album went to #1 for eight weeks in the UK and became their first one to go gold there; it also topped German charts and got to #2 in the U.S. where it eventually became their first platinum one.

Of course, as they were reveling in the “aftermath” of the Aftermath success, the Beatles were putting together Revolver… and the competition continued to heat up.

April 13 – Fans Said Yes To Billy

Perseverance pays off. Just ask Billy Squier. The Massachusetts rocker spent his 20s (and the entire decade of the ’70s) toiling away relatively unnoticed in a number of bands, then with a solo album before hitting it big… which is what he did with Don’t Say No, his second album, released this day in 1981.

Squier had been a musical youth, learning to play piano quite well by age 9. A couple of years later, he picked up a guitar after being inspired by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and in particular Eric Clapton. Eventually he got signed to Capitol Records, but his 1980 debut went nowhere.

Happily, Capitol hadn’t given up on him and sent him to the famous Power Station studios in New York to work with producer Reinhold Mack (who was hot at the time, having just finished up Queen’s mega-seller, The Game) for his sophomore effort. Don’t Say No may sound like a full band effort, but was more solo than a number of “solo” records of the era. Squier wrote all ten songs, played lead guitar on them, added piano where necessary, even drummed on some of the tracks and then helped Mack produce the effort. Among the few session musicians used was Mark Clarke on bass. Clarke was with Uriah Heep previously.

With so much input from the singer, the success of it really was a reflection of his appeal – an appeal helped on with the female fans by his video-ready good looks. Thankfully for him, it seems there was appeal to his glossily-produced hard rock lite, if you will. the sound was perhaps a forerunner of Bon Jovi and in the words of Classic Rock Review, a sound which was highly reminiscent of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin with “an additional gloss layer that makes it very radio friendly.”

That was probably not a bad description of the album, and in particular the three hits it launched, “In the Dark”, “My Kinda Lover” and the biggest one of his career, “The Stroke.” A little bit raunchy, a little bit heavy but no so much that AM radio couldn’t take to it. All three plus “Lonely is the Night” were heavy rotation staples on FM rock stations that year, and “The Stroke” made it to #17 overall on the singles chart, and #7 to the north in Canada where he was also popular. Off this continent, he didn’t draw much notice however.

Critics back then seemed slower to take note of Don’t Say No than the fans did. It took only three months to go gold in the U.S., and eventually it would end up at triple platinum, the best of his career.

Retrospectively, it seems like it’s received reasonably well for the style and era it came from. Allmusic rate it a very favorable 4.5-stars noting it was “undoubtedly his best” of the nine albums to date, and that it’s a “near-perfect example of early-’80s melodic hard rock.” The aforementioned Classic Rock Review also suggested it “leaves one with little doubt that this is a bona fide, legitimate rocker.” But they add the reservation, on “the other hand, (there’s)something that’s a little off, something you can’t quite put your finger on” but something that kept him from being widely respected among the decade’s greats or continuing on with a lengthy, superstar career.

Perhaps so, but I imagine if you were to ask most musicians if they’d be happy with one triple platinum (and two other platinum) records and a couple of singles played heavily on radio nearly four decades on, their answer would be “don’t say no!”.

April 12 – The Fool At 40

One of the decade’s big albums came out this day in 1982 and made a star out of John Mellencamp – though back then he still had to use the name “John Cougar”.

American Fool, his fifth album (and third ‘big label” one) was released 40 years ago to middling reviews, at best. Rolling Stone gave it only 2 stars (out of 5) lambasting him saying “all he has to do is open his mouth and out oozes insincerity” although they did approve of his “tight, unpretentious Indiana band.” Fans didn’t care though, the album hit #1 in the U.S. and Canada, going 5X platinum in both countries and spawning a pair of massive hit singles : “Hurt So Good” (which he says was written as a joke) and “Jack & Diane”. While the former topped out at #2 on Billboard, it spent 16 weeks in the top 10, most of any record that decade. Surprisingly as well, it earned him his only Grammy to date, for Best Male Rock Performance. And the latter, well it was a #1 hit then, became his biggest-selling single and as he puts it gets played more on radio now than it did in ’82 and it “gave me the keys to do what I want…I’ve been able to live on my whims, that’s what ‘Jack and Diane’ gave me.” He’s variously said it was inspired by the 1962 movie Sweet Bird of Youth, about an aging gigolo going back to his hometown, or by people he saw in his hometown of Seymour, Indiana. A third single, the pleasant enough little pro-love song “Hand to Hold Onto” also made the top 20 in the States, but after that the album wasn’t really chock-full of timeless classics. In fact, Mellencamp has largely eschewed himself from most of the other run-of-the-mill rock songs on it. However, not only did the album spur him to stardom, so too did it for producer Don Gehman. Up until that point he’d largely been a studio engineer but his work on producing this one not only made him Mellencamp’s go-to guy for producing for most of the next decade, but also got him work on several R.E.M. and Tracy Chapman albums as well as Hootie & the Blowfish’s biggie, Cracked Rear View.

All of which came as a surprise to him, as well as to John. “Nobody liked the record at Phonogram,” Gehman says adding Mellencamp swore at the execs, physically pushed one out of the studio when he’d given the singer some negative feedback and dared them to not release it! It earned him the nickname “Little Bastard” at the record company… but soon it would be said in a fond tone, once it began topping the charts. It was exciting for them, but also scary says drummer Kenny Aronoff. Within weeks they went from opening for Heart to headlining shows, and feeling “my God – how can you do it again? There’s no formula…I didn’t want to go back to having to have a ‘day job’. None of us did.” Happily for them all, the near-equal success of his follow-up album the next year, Uh-huh, pretty much ensured they wouldn’t have to do that!

While John may have at times indicated “Jack and Diane” wasn’t the epitome of his writing ability, he certainly has a fondness for it and its ongoing appeal. He announced last fall that there is a Broadway musical based on it coming soon, but he says it’s not going to be a cheery “Jukebox musical”. “Every problem that this country’s going through today is in that musical,” he says and other than it will revolve around two young kids called Jack and Diane, Diane’s going to be a Hispanic character in the small Midwestern town and it will be built around a number of his songs. Other than that, few details are otherwise known but sounds not that “fool”-ish at all!

April 5 – The Turntable Talk, Part 3 – You Say You Don’t Know The Beatles

Today we continue a new feature at A Sound Day, which we hope to run from time to time throughout the year – Turntable Talk. In it, we’ve invited several other ardent music fans and bloggers to discuss one topic. To start off, a timely one : “The Beatles : why are we still talking about them 50(+) years on?”

It seems that The Beatles are more in the news and public’s eye now than they have been in decades, with the release of the Get Back documentary last year. But, then again, they never really went away. So we’ve got a group of fellow fans to discuss what it is about the Beatles that makes them stay relevant, decade after decade. Today, we get a Nostalgic Italian’s thoughts on the Fab Four, courtesy Keith. Keith’s a guy who knows music inside and out, having worked as a radio DJ for years and his site often looks back on that, and other things we remember fondly from decades gone by.  We recommend you checking it out! Keith ponders how to describe the Beatles to someone unfamiliar with them:

Since I started this blog four years ago, I have wanted to write a blog about the Beatles. Outside of a few “mentions” and a couple guest blogs from my buddy Max, I have just never tackled a Beatles blog. So let me tell you how I was finally “forced” to write about the boys from Liverpool.

Of the many blogs I follow, many of them are musically oriented. One of those is A Sound Day.

Dave reached out to a few of us and had an idea for a monthly blog topic. The topic would be music oriented and geared toward something that we’d all be familiar with. Each of us will write on that and it will be featured on his blog. The first topic suggested was “The Beatles – why are we talking about them 50 (+) years on?”

With that being a “base” to start with, we were given the option to write about (1) why they are still relevant (2) why they remain popular (3) is their popularity justified, etc… The Beatles themselves was the “prompt” and we can veer off how we want to. That being said, the questions that Dave presented are among many “sub” topics that I have in my notebook (Beatles Cover Songs, Songs covered by the Beatles, Favorite album, Top 10 favorites, etc…)

I have to admit, I had a difficult time trying to decide what angle I was going to go with. Then I began to think, “What if someone was unfamiliar with The Beatles? How would I introduce that person to their music? If I could only pick 10 of their songs to give an overall picture of the group, what would they be?” I made a list. This blog will reflect that list.

Before I go on, let me say that I hate my list! I cannot even begin to tell you how much I struggled to narrow it down to 10 songs that encompassed what I felt expressed why the Beatles were so fantastic. Oh, the songs that I cut from my list! There are SO many fantastic songs, and no doubt, you will question why certain ones are not on this list. I found myself questioning that, too.

After editing, re-editing, adding and removing songs, and editing again, I finally said “This is the list. No going back.” Like it or not, here are the 10 songs that I chose to introduce someone to the Fab Four:

I Saw Her Standing There

This has always been one of my favorite tracks. Paul’s “1-2-3-4” count off into the driving guitar grabs me every time. It was the first track of their first album – what a way to start an album! After all the years, I was still playing this at weddings and parties when I was DJing and it always filled the dance floor.

The story goes that Paul saw a teenage gal dancing the Twist at a dance and that event was the basis for this song. It is hard not to tap your foot as you listen to this one. (Side note: I feel the guitar solo in this song is kind of lame. The boys were still quite young at this time. Compare this solo with solos from songs just three years later and you can get a feel for just how far they came musically.)

If I Fell

When I think of the Beatles, I think of their harmonies. As I tried to pick songs, I tried to find one that showcased some of those harmonies. In a Playboy interview in 1984, Paul said “If I Fell” was recorded during “our close-harmony period.”

John called this his “first attempt at a ballad proper.” As a music guy, I love the chord changes in this song. Simple chords, diminished chords, and some ninth chords are all featured in the song. It is simple, yet complex.

On a personal note, after my divorce, I heard this song on the Beatles channel on Sirius XM just as my wife and I were starting to date. I related to these lyrics. Who isn’t scared about starting a new relationship after being hurt by someone?

Got To Get You Into My Life

Brian Epstein wrote in his 1964 autobiography that the Beatles were turned down by Decca Records. He was told “guitar groups are on their way out.” I chose this song because it shows that they were more than just a guitar group. This was the first time the group ever used a horn section in one of their songs.

Paul admits that the song is an ode to marijuana. That is certainly not why it made my list. I’ll be honest, I never would have guessed that. I always heard it as a guy wanting a girl. I guess I’m just dumb. I chose it because, as a horn player, I loved the brass in it.

I’ll Follow The Sun

The song is credited to both Lennon and McCartney as writers, but the truth is that Paul wrote it. He remembered, “I wrote that in my front parlour in Forthlin Road. I was about 16. ‘I’ll Follow the Sun’ was one of those very early ones. I seem to remember writing it just after I’d had the flu and I had that cigarette. I remember standing in the parlour, with my guitar, looking out through the lace curtains of the window, and writing that one.”

He said that the group was always ready to sound different. They didn’t want to get into a place where all their songs sounded the same. This one certainly was a very different sound. I love the guitar work in this one. It is beautiful. This is another song that features some good Paul/John harmonies.

Eight Days A Week

This is a song that never left my list. It has always been one of my top Beatles songs. It’s a feel good song. I love the message of this song – There aren’t enough days in a week to show how much he cares about his love.

This was the group’s second #1 song in the U.S. It is just a solid Beatles pop song. It’s hard NOT to like it. There are varying stories as to how they came up with the title. Some sources say it was a “Ringoism,” something Ringo said that struck a chord with John and Paul. Another source says that Paul was in a car and he asked the chauffeur how he was. The driver supposedly replied, “working hard – working eight days a week.”

It is one of many Beatles songs that features “hand clapping.”

Something

While the bulk of the Beatles songs were penned by Lennon and McCartney, George Harrison was responsible for writing some fantastic songs. A perfect example is Something. It is what some call “the perfect love song.” Frank Sinatra (who never really had a lot of nice things to say about the Beatles) even called it “the greatest love song of the past 50 years.”

George says he wrote it “on the piano while we were making The White Album. I had a break while Paul was doing some overdubbing so I went into an empty studio and began to write. that’s really all there is to it, except the middle took some time to sort out.” George actually gave the song to Joe Cocker a year before they cut it.

The song was George’s first single and first number 1. It has been covered by many artists, and George has said that his favorite cover was done by James Brown!

A Hard Day’s Night

This song had to be on my list. Musicologist Alan Pollack says that this song “arguably holds a place within the upper echelon of the Beatles catalog.”

According to A Hard Day’s Write, Ringo is quoted as saying, “I came up with the phrase ‘a hard day’s night.’ It just came out. We went to do a job and we worked all day and we happened to work all night. I came out, still thinking it was day and said, ‘It’s been a hard day…’ looked around, saw that it was dark and added…’ ‘s night.”

There is a lesson in this song – If you work hard, romantic and domestic bliss will follow.

This song gets me from that opening chord! It’s also one of the great cowbell songs of our time!

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

This one is another George Harrison composition. Some have called this his greatest song. To me, this is a great example of just how mature the group had become in 4 years. The guitar work in this song is fantastic (Eric Clapton appears on the song). I love the interplay between the piano and high hat cymbal in the intro.

When I worked in Classic Rock, someone played me a clip of a comedian (can’t remember who) who goes off on classic rock radio. He says that there are more classic rock songs that “Stairway to Heaven,” “Layla,” and “While My Guitar gently Weeps.” This is funny, but it is a good example of just how popular this song is with music fans.

Yesterday

This song has the distinction of being covered by more artists than any other song in history. Paul calls it his “most successful song” and says that it is “amazing that it came to me in a dream.” Paul stated that he had the melody from the dream but didn’t have the words – so he “blocked it out with ‘Scrambled Eggs’.”

The sheer beauty of this song is in the arrangement. It is Paul, a guitar and a string quartet – and it works. It is hard to imagine it any other way (despite the countless covers). When Paul played it for the group, Ringo said it didn’t need any drums and John and George said it didn’t need any more guitar, and from there, it became the first “solo” song.

Fun Fact: The four members of the string quartet had never played together as a group before they played on the session.

Hey Jude

Right up until the time I was ready to start writing, the final question I had was – “Let it Be” or “Hey Jude”? Which one do I include? In the end, “Hey Jude” won out because it is sort of an anthem. It is a stand alone Beatles song. It’s like none other.

At 7 minutes long, it is what radio people called a “bathroom song.” Before the days of automation, DJ’s had to start a new record when one ended. Today, computers do that for them and they can walk away from the computer or studio for 10 minutes at a time as long as they didn’t have to talk. Back in the day, though, that wasn’t the case.

If you really stop and think about it, the song itself is only three minutes long. The last four minutes is just a refrain and fade out. The end of the record is longer than the song itself!

The song was written by Paul for John Lennon’s son Julian, who was then 5 years old. He was upset about his father and mother getting a divorce. It was written to help console him. Julian said, It’s hard to imagine that this man was thinking about me and my life so much that he wrote a song about me…If I’m in a bar and the song comes on the radio, I still get goose pimples.”

I was dead set on “Let it Be” being the final song, until I listened back to both. Hey Jude is more “Beatles” to me, in that we have great lyrics, great instrumentation, and great harmonies. Let It Be, almost falls into that “solo” status, as it is pretty much Paul.

In Conclusion

After writing on these 10 songs, I looked back over my initial list of like 50 songs. It makes me sad that I didn’t include some of them. Others, I had on the list just because I liked them. Should I have added a Ringo vocal song? There were some good ones, but … no.

So back to Dave’s question: “The Beatles – why are we talking about them 50 (+) years on?”

Their stuff from 1964 still sounds fresh and stands out. People still request their songs, sing along with their songs, and dance to their songs! Movies are being made about them (Yesterday, Get Back). Their albums still sell. They have their own Sirius XM channel. The only answer I can come up with is “Because they are THAT good.”

Thanks, Dave for allowing me to take part in this! I look forward to reading the other posts from you and my music blogger friends.

 

March 20 – Who Doesn’t Love Rock’n’Roll…Or Joan?

If you’re gonna be a One Hit Wonder, it helps if your hit is so big, you’re still a household name 40 years later…and makes Mattel issue a doll in your image. Ok, truth be told Joan Jett wasn’t a one hit wonder, but mostly, we just remember her for the smash “I Love Rock & Roll”… a song which hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1982.

Jett has always been “exhibit A” for the case against those who say “women don’t rock.” Though she was born and spent her early years around Philadelphia, her family moved to southern California when she was a “tween”, which was around when she got her first guitar. The “tomboy” learned to play it quickly and started up the Runaways (which also included future member of the Bangles Micki Steele) when she was just 17. Although they didn’t sell much here, they had a loyal following and hit it quite big in Japan. After the Runaways broke up in 1979, Jett went solo. She signed in Europe to Ariola Records, a division of BMG, but after her initial record fizzled, no American company was interested in putting out her music. So, she and her friend Kenny Laguna, a record producer, decided to start their own record company, Blackheart, to do so. Her 1981 debut in North America drew a tiny bit of interest, and they recorded her next album, with a trio of supporting musicians they dubbed The Blackhearts.

I Love Rock & Roll” was a song written in 1975 by a couple of members of Brit band The Arrows. Allan Merrill, one of the writers, said he wrote it as “a knee jerk reaction to the Rolling Stones ‘I Know, It’s Only Rock’n’Roll.” They recorded it but their version, rather a bit tame and pop-pish compared to the Jett one, fell flat on British ears and didn’t chart. However, Jett happened to see them play it on TV while the Runaways were on tour in Europe and loved the tune. She recorded it in ’79 with Steve Jones and Paul Cook, recently out of the Sex Pistols. Likewise, it failed to draw much attention.

However, when putting together her ’82 album with The Blackhearts, she decided to re-do it and make it the title track. While she wrote several of the ten songs, her best-received were cover versions, including the follow-up single to this, Tommy James “Crimson and Clover.” Jett played rhythm guitar and of course, added her characteristic broken-glass mezzo-soprano delivery to the words.

Well, turns out third time’s the charm, or it was for this song. As journalist Santhi Sivanesan points out, “its raw chords, raunchy lyrics and anthemic chorus stood out I a year where hits wore their glossy production on their sleeves.” That could have been the reason, or maybe it was just a simple but catchy rock song. Either way, it pushed the album to platinum status in the States and Canada and the song quickly went to #1. It spent seven weeks on top in the U.S., and also topped charts in Canada (where it ended up as the year-end biggest-seller), Australia, New Zealand and several other lands…in the UK, it got to #4, not as huge as here but far more popular than their homegrown original!

Crimson and Clover” made the North American top 10 as well, but after that hits were hard to buy for Joan. In fact, she only scored one significant other one, “I Hate Myself For Loving You” in 1988.

But her reputation (a bad one perhaps?) follows her still. She made one hugely influential fan in Dave Grohl. Grohl managed to name-check her in the speech he gave when Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and devotes much of a chapter in his book, Storyteller to her. When shopping in London with his little girls, he found a Joan Jett Barbie – “red Converse Chucks, leather pants, sleeveless black T-shirt and a white Gibson Les Paul junior slung around her shoulder.” Needless to say, he bought it… and showed it to her when she visited his house, by which point his daughters were singing along to the chorus. Even young girls love rock and roll, it seems.

March 15 – A Little Makeup, A Little Marketing Helped Make A Big Hit

There were lots of hard rock bands in the ’70s…but probably only one hard rock brand Kiss. And that owes a lot to this day in 1976, when they released their breakthrough fourth studio album, Destroyer.

By then, Kiss had been around for about four years and built up a following that could be described as a small mainstream one or a large cult one. They formed at the tail-end of 1972 in the Big Apple, in some ways a pretty conventional rock’n’roll band for the times. It consisted of bassist/singer Gene Simmons, guitarist Ace Frehley, drummer Peter Criss and guitarist/alternate lead vocalist Paul Stanley. They were essentially a competent, but unremarkable hard rock outfit at first, but Simmons wanted more for them. Simmons engineered the band, and sound-wise he said from Jimmy Page to Jeff Beck, “I’ve ripped off so many English riffs, if it wasn’t for British influence, we wouldn’t be here.” But when it came to image, he looked to other Brits…glam rockers like David Bowie, and Slade. So they came up with the idea of having the wildest stage show and outfits possible. They started wearing lots of leather, platform boots, and most memorably, wild face paint… Simmons, the demon or vampire; Criss the cat; Frehley the space man (silver face paint for him instead of black), and the “Star child” Stanley. Once seen, it became hard to forget them. So too was their distinctive logo, drawn by Paul Stanley. Because it was originally hand-drawn, the two S’s aren’t quite symmetrical or identical…which sat alright with them because they didn’t want to be perfect! The well-known logo didn’t sit well in the Old World, either… in Germany, Austria and Israel, they had to re-design it because authorities figured the two S’s looked too much like a Nazi “SS” symbol. What would have been an embarrassment to many bands only helped increase Kiss’ notoriety and fame.

They’d scored rave reviews for their outrageous stage show, and had a bit of a commercial breakthrough in 1975 with a live record, Kiss Alive. Their label, Casablanca wanted to capitalize on it and their notoriety (which they likely assumed would be a passing fad) and strike while the iron was hot, so they had them in the studio at the beginning of ’76, and brought in Bob Ezrin to produce. The Canadian was no older than the band members but by that time had produced hits for Alice Cooper (School’s Out) and Lou Reed (Berlin)… two acts which shared Kiss’s flare it might seem. He ran a tight ship, yelling, blowing whistles like a gym teacher and making them keep to a schedule; even teaching them lessons in music theory. Stanley would call it a “music boot camp” but added “it was exactly what we needed.” Ezrin also decided that (as allmusic would later comment) it was impossible “trying to re-create a concert setting in the studio (so) they went the opposite route” making quite an experimental album, with lots of dubbing, sound effects… and an orchestra. Ezrin also helped them polish up the ten songs, getting co-writing credits on most.

Those ten songs included a number of barn-burner rockers perfect for any angsty teenager, from the reckless driving and crash of “Detroit Rock City” to the S&M undertones on “Sweet Pain” to the arm-pumping, sing-along rock anthems like “God of Thunder” and “Shout it Out Loud.” And there was “Beth.” In a classic case of “one of these things is not like the other”, “Beth” was a tender love song about a musician on the road missing his girl at home. Peter Criss wrote it, and the others…hated it. In fact, they didn’t appear on it, and would have happily jettisoned it had Ezrin not seen its crossover appeal and its chance to win Kiss a new breed of fan. He brought in the New York Philharmonic to play in place of the usual guitars and bass, and played piano on it himself.

Upon release, critics were lukewarm to it. Rolling Stone panned its “bloated ballads” (ie., one assumes “Beth”) and “pedestrian drumming” while the Village Voice called it their “least interesting album” to date. The usual fans scooped it up quickly, with it going gold in the U.S. in just five weeks. But as quickly as it took off, it also started to disappear from the charts and front of store displays. The lead single, “Shout it Out Loud” did OK – #31 in the States, and remarkably to #1 in Canada – but it didn’t exactly break new ground for them and the follow-up, “Flaming Youth” flamed out barely making the charts at all. “Detroit Rock City” didn’t seem to be doing any better…until a DJ thought to flip over the 7” single and play the B-side for a lark. That B-side was “Beth”…and his phone lines lit up. Much like “Black Water” by the Doobie Brothers which we looked at earlier today, the “throwaway” song became one of the band’s keys to success. People who hated Kiss and hard rock were loving ‘Beth”. The record company soon re-printed the singles to have “Beth” as the A-side hit. And a hit it was, making the top 10 in North America, winning them their first gold singles (in both the U.S. and Canada) and pushing Destroyer back up the charts…to #11 at home, It did even better, #6 in Australia and Canada. Before long, it was double-platinum, best yet of their 20 studio albums to date.

By year’s end, Kiss was more or less a household name, “power ballads” were de rigeour for hard rock bands and soon, the quartet would even be sharing a space with Superman and Batman. In 1977, a Kiss comic book was released! It seems fair to say when your group is starring in a comic, you’ve become a rock brand. Shout that out loud, Gene!

March 10 – You May Be Right… Joel Rocked A Little In 1980

Pink Floyd released one of rock’s biggest-ever albums to the American public this day in 1973. Another March 10th album release was this biggie, albeit not Dark Side.. big. And not as well-liked by Rolling Stone! Billy Joel released his seventh studio album, Glass Houses on this day in 1980.

It was his second-straight #1 in North America and ended up being 7X platinum in the U.S. largely on the strength of the four hit singles including “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (his first #1 single) and “You May Be Right”  With songs like “Sometimes A Fantasy” the album was a bit more rock than his previous works, and inspired a little by the “new wave” acts like Blondie and the Cars which he said “I like it but it’s not particularly new.”

The (slightly ) different sound was an obvious attempt by Joel to keep up with the times. He said when he was recording the record, at the tail-end of the ’70s, “everything was being recategorized, because they needed to define it against something.” He said the punk acts of the Big Apple and post-punk acts starting to appear reminded him of ’60s garage rock and he didn’t care much for the term “punk.” “In my neighborhood, you didn’t call yourself a punk,” he recalls, “other people called you a punk.” Still, he saw the change in sounds as a good thing. “the music business needed an enema, and punk rock was that enema,” he says. While hardly “punk” or “new wave”, the album did sound a bit more contemporary than some of his ’70s work and allmusic give it a strong 4.5 star rating noting it is the “closest Joel ever got to a pure rock album” and the Grammys concurred awarding Billy the “Best Rock Vocal- Male”. Rolling Stone however panned it, comparing Joel to an “obnoxious frat boy whose hoisted one too many” and calling “Close to the Borderline” on it a “godawful Eagles-go-punk state of the union message.”

Godawful or not – and we’d vote “not” – Glass Houses has sold past nine million copies and remains one of the most popular in Joel’s catalog. It was one of several of his recently remastered in a new vinyl edition marketed exclusively by Walmart.

March 9 – Big Talent, Little Notice Seems Trower’s Power

Today we wish a happy birthday to one of classic rock’s best-known names…yet least-known musicians! Paradox Robin Trower turns 77 today…just in time to ready his 26th solo album, due next month. As Louder Sound ask, “he played guitar for Procol Harum, supported the Beatles and Rolling Stones, then sold out stadiums as a solo artist…so why did he never become a household name?”

The answer, likely “no hit singles.” Being nicknamed “Fish Face” might not help. Plus, while his talent is undeniable, he has been widely seen as a copycat, first of Eric Clapton, later of Jimi Hendrix. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit.

Trower grew up in Essex, England and soon developed a love of early rock’n’roll. He was a fan of Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley as a teen (he’s said it was seeing Elvis with a guitar was what made him decide to play), but more recently told the Houston Chronicle James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and B.B. King’s Live At The Regal were actually his two most influential records when young. Especially the James Brown. “I always thought rock’n’roll was more R&B influenced (than by the blues or country)” he admits.

While still in high school he formed a band called the Paramounts, with B,J. Wilson and Gary Brooker, among others. They had minor success in Britain, but notably opened for the Rolling Stones and Beatles early on in those bands careers. The Beatles ? “They weren’t that good live, but they were nice guys,” Trower says.

After about four years, the Paramounts broke up and Wilson and Brooker formed Procol Harum. Trower and his guitar, at the time a Les Paul, started a band called The Jam…not the same one as the late-’70s “Going Underground” one, mind you. His The Jam didn’t do much, but Procol Harum hit a home run right off the bat with “Whiter Shade of Pale”, one of the biggest hits of all-time in the UK. But their first guitarist quit and they added Trower in as they were becoming a name. He played on their first five albums, but left just before they’d hit paydirt for a second time with the live recording of “Conquistador.” Thus he was a member of a well-known, big-selling band for about five years but the closest thing he scored to a hit with them was “Homburg”, which squeaked into the top 20 in their homeland.

He left because Procol Harum was somewhat more geared toward keyboards than lots of guitars, but mainly because his writing was limited by them. So he switched to a Fender Stratocaster (still his guitar of choice) after playing one while hanging out with Jethro Tull, and started a blues-rock trio, the Robin Trower Band. Since then he’s put out albums about every other year, sometimes as that, sometimes under his own name. He did have a run of four gold albums in the U.S. in the ’70s, starting with the critically-acclaimed Bridge of Sighs (which hit the top 10 in both the U.S. and Canada) and was popular as a concert draw, but as mentioned, failed to become widely known in say, a Peter Frampton way. In his homeland, the most successful album he’s been a part of since Procol Harum was Bryan Ferry’s Taxi, which he played guitar on and produced, scoring a gold disc and two hit singles.

For all that, he has his share of fans and respect. While Rolling Stone omitted him from their list of the top 100 guitarists, Louder Sound put him at #46 and call him the “Guitarist who should be King!”. They praise his “heavy brick wall power chords and fluid, bluesy, highly melodic lead parts.”

His new album, No More Worlds To Conquer should be out in about six weeks, and might well be accompanied by a small tour. He says “I still love it” (playing concerts) but “not like the big tours where there’s a bus, hotel, a gig. I gave that up a long time ago. That’s not a life.” But neither is retiring. He said three years ago “I’m much nearer the end than the beginning. If I want to get where I want to be, I have to work a lot harder.” Someone once said if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. Robin Trower is a shining example of that.