December 9 – From Graceland To The Great White North Eh?

Only in Canada you say? Pity!” was the tagline in a famous Canadian commercial back in the 1970s. It was referring to a brand of tea, but it could just as well have described fans of “The King” in the U.S. Because on this day in 1978, Elvis Presley had the #1 album in Canada – and you could only get it there at the time. Suitably, it was called Elvis: A Canadian Tribute.

This was about a year after Presley had died, and there was a big appetite among fans for anything Elvis related. He’d put out 13 official compilation albums during his lifetime (according to Wikipedia) but it took little time for that number to be exceeded with posthumous releases. RCA cleverly came up with the idea of doing one specifically designed for the Canadian market. They came up with this rather hodgepodge release.

The LP contained11 songs, plus the recording of a Vancouver news conference he held in 1957. As many know, Elvis was never allowed to tour outside the States by his manager Colonel Tom, but he did perform twice, and only twice, outside the country. Once, on April 2, 1957 in Toronto, then on August 31 the same year in Vancouver. With a crowd of over 20 000 there, it was his biggest concert of ’57.

The album contains some tracks recorded at those two concerts, including “Jailhouse Rock” and “Teddy Bear.” And it was filled in with Elvis recordings of songs written or popularized by Canadians, including “My Way” (lyrics by Paul Anka), Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” and “That’s What You Get For Loving Me”, and “Snowbird”, made famous by Anne Murray and “Put Your Hand In The Hand”, made a hit by Ocean, both Canadian acts and both written by another Canuck, Gene MacLellan.

It came out as a regular LP, and also in a limited edition, numbered, gold vinyl version, which shows up here and there and can fetch about $125 on ebay. In 1999, it was released in small quantities on CD, with a couple of new tracks and more press conference coverage added in. One Elvis fan site recommends it more for the latter than the music which they say is “a bit soft”. Elvis apparently talks of the rigors of touring, his parents, movies and other things in the news conferences.

The album went to #1 in Canada for one week, being knocked out of the top spot by Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, which was #1 in the U.S. then as well. It was oddly only Elvis’ second #1 album in Canada, the first being a live album in 1973. It quickly hit double platinum status. In the States, RCA eventually released a small quantity of it, and coupled with sales of Canadian imports, it got to #86 on the charts.


August 24 – Starts And Ends For The Stones

It’s an important date on the Rolling Stones calendar. Of course, when you’ve been around 60 years, there come to be a lot of those!

Of course, sadly enough, their drummer Charlie Watts passed away one year ago from cancer on this day. But 40 years to the day earlier, in 1981, was a much brighter moment for them. That marked the release of their 18th studio album (in North America, in Britain, with different track listings early on in their career it was merely their 16th), Tattoo You.

The album was something of a return to form, if one considers their “form” to be pretty much straight-ahead rock, compared to Emotional Rescue, which came out a year earlier, or Some Girls from ’78. What makes that surprising is that far from a unified album it was basically a reworking of outtakes they had from the past decade! The Stones had agreed to go on a massive world tour starting that fall, and hadn’t got anything much in the way of new songs to record. Associate producer Chris Kimsey explains it “really came about because Mick and Keith were going through a period of not getting on. There was a need to have an album out and I told everyone I could make an album from what I knew was still there…I spent three months going through (outtakes of) the last four, five albums.”

He succeeded surprisingly well, coming up with a solid collection of 11 songs, some dating back to 1972. So far back did he look in fact, that Mick Taylor is the guitarist on two songs…and he had left the band seven years earlier. That done, the band got back together briefly over the winter of ’80-81 in New York to finish off the tracks, in a few cases adding new vocals (the lead-off single “Start Me Up” for example had been “Never Stop” in the demo they worked from) and a few overdubbed instruments, like Sonny Collins sax on “Waiting on A Friend.” Looking back on it, Mick Jagger says “I think it’s excellent. But all the things I usually like, it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have any unity or purpose or place or time.”

Remarkably, fans and critics found it did have a sort of unity and took to it in a big way. The magazine that more or less shares its name with the band (Rolling Stone) rated it 5-stars, declaring “the Rolling Stones are back…(with a new record that) dances – not prances – and rocks – not jives – onto the scene.” The New York Times suggested “Tattoo You is something special”, liking how there were “no Chuck Berry retreads, none of (the songs) are disco, none of them are reggae. They are all rock’n’roll.” Later on, Udiscover Music summed it up as being a record which “consilidated the finest elements of the Stones music, demonstrating their willingness to change while never betraying their roots.”

That was pretty much the case, although they did separate the songs into a rock side of the record and a ballads one. The former generated two hit singles while the latter added one. The “ballad” was “Waiting on a Friend,” a song originally done for Goat’s Head Soup back in ’72; it got to #13 in the U.S. and #10 in Canada. The rockers were “Hang Fire”, a top 20 hit in the States, and memorably, “Start Me Up.” That one had originally been created during the Some Girls sessions (long before Microsoft existed let alone used it for software commercials) and was their first real, prototypical rock song to connect in years. It topped Aussie charts, and got to #2 in the States and Canada. It also was their very first “Mainstream Rock” #1 hit on Billboard. But that’s a bit misleading as the chart had only been begun about six months prior…had it been around in the ’60s there is little doubt they would have been scores of them.

All in all, Tattoo You reached #2 in their homeland, but #1 in a number of other lands including the U.S. (where it was their eighth-straight …but also their last one to date) ,Canada, France and Germany. Although it only hit gold status in the UK, it was 4X platinum in North America.

It helped them make the fall tour in North America the year’s biggest, taking in over $50 million and playing to crowds as big as 181 000 over two nights in Philadelphia, and 87 000 or so in New Orleans’ Superdome, which at the time was the largest-ever indoor crowd for a concert. Fans wanting to relive the experience got the chance in 2012, when they released a double-album called Hampton Coliseum, a recording of their December show in Virginia, which included six of the Tattoo You songs, including “Black Limousine” and “Little T&A” besides the better-known hits.

July 10 – Greenpeace Became White Knights To Music World

The ’80s weren’t quite the ’60s when it came to protest music, but nonetheless there were plenty of musicians who were concerned with the fate of the planet and advocates for the environment. So today we look at an awful event in history which resulted in a memorable benefit concert and album. The Rainbow Warrior ship was sunk, deliberately by the French government on this day in 1985.

The Rainbow Warrior was a 131-foot long ship that was the flagship of environmental organization Greenpeace. At the time it was docked in Auckland, New Zealand and it was planning a trip to the South Pacific to observe, and protest French nuclear tests. For nearly twenty years, France had had nuclear bombs and tested them fairly regular in the beautifully South Seas. This of course, couldn’t have been good for the environment nor the atmosphere…or the health of the small number of residents who lived on the islands. Stopping it, and whaling as well, were two of the main goals of Greenpeace.

This day 37 years back, the boat was rocked by two explosions and quickly sank in the harbor. Though ten crew members got off more or less safely, a Dutch photographer, Fernando Perreira died on the boat. New Zealand correctly termed it an act of terrorism, and their investigators soon found bombs had been placed on the ship by two French scuba divers who worked for that country’s secret service. They charged them with murder, among other things, while France tried to deny any involvement. First they claimed to know nothing at all, then they admitted the arrested men were their employees but were only supposed to be watching the boat to take notes. Eventually a British newspaper got access to French government papers – labeled “Operation Satanique” no less! – with that country’s President, Francois Mitterand authorizing the bombing.

The United Nations were brought in to mediate. The two French bombers eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received 10 year prison sentences, but got returned to France after about one year. The French government paid New Zealand about $10 million in damages and settled privately with Greenpeace and the Perreira family, while at home, there was little fall-out beyond a handful of political resignations – Mitterand not being one of them. He in fact was re-elected in 1988.

That was the end of the news story, but not the reaction. Many people were outraged, understandably…including many musicians. Early in 1986, a Greenpeace benefit concert was organized in Auckland which was headlined by Jackson Browne and Neil Young, and as a special treat for the home crowd, a reunion concert by Split Enz two years after their enz had split. (Sadly, no one seemed to tape the show, or at least archive it online.) Three years later, a major double-album was put out on Geffen Records to raise funds for Greenpeace, entitled Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors. No wonder it took awhile to organize and get to shelves… it contained 31 songs that came close to being the definitive package to remember the ’80s by.

Among the many, varied artists who contributed to it were some predictable ones who’d always been environmental advocates – Peter Gabriel (“Red Rain”), U2 ( a live version of “Pride”), Sting (“Love is the Seventh Wave”) and R.E.M. (“It’s the End of the World As We Know It”) for instance – but they were joined by quite an impressive array of other artists who were apparently appalled by the bombing. Those included Bryan Adams (“Run To You”), Bryan Ferry (“Don’t Stop the Dance”), the Pretenders (“Middle of the Road”), Simple Minds (a live cut of “Waterfront”), the Thompson Twins (“Lay Your Hands On Me”), Robbie Robertson (“Somewhere Down the Crazy River”), the Grateful Dead (“Throwing Bones”) and on and on…Huey Lewis and the News, John Mellencamp, the Silencers, Sade. It was an impressive collection, and show of musical solidarity with the environmental agency.

Last but not least, in 2005 a supergroup of New Zealand’s artists recorded a song called “Anchor Me” to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the bombing It hit #3 there.

The good news is that perhaps the ongoing bad publicity eventually led France to stop testing nukes; last detonating one in the Pacific in 1996.

April 6 – The Turntable Talk, Part 4 – We Could Still Be Talking About Them In 100 Years

Today we continue our 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 have Max, from the Power Pop blog. Although based near Nashville, Max writes daily about great rock and pop songs from the ’50s through the ’90s and at times, some of the great TV of that era as well. We recommend you checking it out! Max writes:

So why are The Beatles still popular with older and younger generations? Their influence seems never-ending. It’s as though they have never left. There are other bands that left a legacy but nothing like the footprint of the Beatles.

The Beatles shaped culture instead of following it. Society changed after that appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. They cast such a large net in music compared to everyone else. They influenced everything from rock, folk-rock, power pop, psychedelia, progressive rock, and heavy metal. They practically invented the thought or image of a rock band. They moved passed that and have become a huge part of the culture they helped create.

The Beatle’s breakup was announced in 1970. Many rumors flew that they might regroup through the years but that ended on December 8, 1980, in New York with the assassination of John Lennon.

Through the seventies, the Beatles were still quite popular with the Red and Blue greatest-hits albums released in the early seventies. The greatest hits album Rock and Roll Music (terrible silver cover) was released in 1976. Capitol released “Got To Get You In My Life” as a single off of the album and it peaked at #1 in Canada and #7 in the Billboard 100 in 1976. This was 10 years after it was released as an album track on Revolver.

I bought my first Beatle album (Hey Jude) in 1975 when I was 8 and then bought the Rock and Roll Music album. So, I was a 2nd generation Beatles fan and there were many of us. The solo Beatles dominated the charts to the mid-seventies. After 1975 they had hits but not as many as before. Beatles’ popularity waned in the mid to late 70s when the “newer/ younger” generations considered the Beatles as belonging to their parents. Many youngsters believed Led Zeppelin, Queen, and all newer bands would replace the Beatles in scope and success.

Everything changed when Lennon was murdered. A newer generation heard the music. Their popularity would go up and down but with the first Beatle CDs released in 1987…again another generation heard the Beatles. Sgt Pepper was re-released 20 years after the original and it went to number one.

What really cemented them in the public’s mind happened on November 20, 1995. The Beatles Anthology CDs were released, and the documentary was viewed during prime time on ABC. Since then, they have never left. On November 13, 2000, they released the compilation album “1” which was the best-selling album of the decade worldwide. The Beatles were also the largest selling band between 2000-2010. In 2009 The Beatles Rock Band game came out and…yet another generation found their music. One was my son who was born in 2000.

Between 2010-2020 they remixed and reissued many of their classic albums with 50th-anniversary editions. The Get Back film by Peter Jackson is the latest project that has thrust them in the spotlight again…but really, they have never left.

The bottom line for their staying power is their music. The songwriting was outstanding. Even the early music was something new. They used minor chords, and different rhythms, along with harmonizing over the top. I’m not going to go into musical theory, but they never repeated themselves. Every album stands on its own.  John Lennon’s rhythm guitar was quirky and inventive, George Harrison brought in a Chet Atkins style along with jazz chords, Paul brought bass playing to a new level, and Ringo was a left-hander that played right-handed with an open high hat. The main thing was the songwriting, quality, and quantity that is rarely if ever seen.

Bob Dylan: “Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid.”

They rarely included their singles on albums. Most bands used singles to sell albums, but The Beatles treated both formats as different entities. Songs that weren’t released as singles include “Norwegian Wood”, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”, “With A Little Help From My Friends”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”,” All My Loving”, “A Day In The Life”, “Back In The USSR”, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, “Helter Skelter”, “Michele”, “The Night Before”, and one of the most popular Beatles song “Here Comes The Sun”, and many more. Any other band would have released these songs as singles but with the Beatles…they were just album cuts. That is how deep their songwriting was at the time, and from 1966 onward George was contributing to the quality as well. George developed into a great songwriter in an impossible situation of being with two of the best in history.

They had more of a variety than many others. They were rockers in Hamburg and The Cavern. They were pop stars in the Beatlemania years. They were rock-folk-pop in the middle period of Rubber Soul and Revolver. They were Psychedelic rockers during the Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour era. Then they went back to their roots and were rockers again with the “White Album” and Let It Be. Abbey Road saw them perfecting their craft in all genres. They knew when to make an exit…while still on top.

They broke up because they outgrew each other and were together constantly, much like brothers. John, Paul, and George grew up together in Liverpool and they knew Ringo well early on. They were never made to stay together like the Stones. The Stones developed a business/brand attitude, but the Beatles were more of a family and things were more personal.

They were not this clean polite band that Brian Epstein and the press created. In fact, the Stones and Beatles’ images should have been reversed… but to make it…they had to clean up to get through the international door. After they did, the door was open for all others. They did however speak of whatever was on their mind. They said things stars just didn’t say, even in the early days. There was something honest about them that is still there to this day.

They were symmetrical… John brought in Paul, Paul brought in George, and George brought in Ringo.

Their story adds depth to their legacy. The odds of them finding Brian Epstein, George Martin, Stuart Sutcliffe, and everyone on the way was nearly zero. If one key person would have would have gone the other way…the story would not be the same or had not happened.

In a hundred years…the question will still be asked… why are the Beatles still relevant?

A couple of videos to leave you with –  New bands on the importance of The Beatles   Even Motorhead Were Fans





November 16 – It Was Tempt-ation-ing For Christmas Shoppers

While the music world was in the midst of the British Invasion in the mid-’60s, there was of course, lots going on from this side of the ocean as well. While the Beatles, Stones and Moody Blues (to name a few) were representing all that was fresh and exciting from the UK, Motown was going strong from Detroit. It was a big day for Gordy Berry’s label in 1966. Not only did teen-aged Stevie Wonder have his seventh album, Down to Earth released, one of the label’s top draws put out an interesting one too: The Temptations Greatest Hits.

The Temptations were at the time one of the three mainstay top acts on Motown, along with the Miracles and the Supremes. By this point in time, they’d already had 11 top 40 hits in the U.S. including a #1 in “My Girl.” However, like many acts of the day, they were first and foremost a “singles” group, with the 45s selling well but the albums being something of an afterthought and often non-essential, even to their fans. So a “greatest hits” type of compilation was a natural fit, although not something that was all that common yet.

The Temptations Greatest Hits was more or less exactly what the name suggested, a dozen songs including all their previous hits plus one relatively new one (something that would also become a common sales technique for compilation albums in later years): “Beauty is Only Skin Deep”. That one was on the charts at the time and hadn’t been included on any of their four studio albums; it got to #3 on Billboard and was their fifth R&B chart-topper. The song had been written by Edward Holland and Norman Whitfield (who also wrote “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” ) and originally had been recorded by the Miracles, but hadn’t been released as a single. As the plain blue cover with the name and songs printed in plain white type suggests, Gordy was always frugal. So rather than re-record the whole track, he had the Temptations use the instrumental demo from the 1964 version, put down by Whitfield and just add in their vocals. David Ruffin sang lead, as he had on their biggest hits to that point like “My Girl” and “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.”

The album was a roaring success, and “tempted” many people to put under the Christmas tree. That in turn doubtless influenced other labels in their marketing of compilation albums just in time for Christmas. It got to #5 in the U.S., their highest album position to that point, and spent a remarkable 120 weeks on the charts. By the time it dropped off, they’d scored nine more significant hits including “I Wish It Would Rain” and it was almost time to put out their Greatest Hits Volume II which came out in 1970. By the end of the ’60s, they’d had 18 American top 20 hits tying them with The Supremes for most among Motown artists. Gordy knew he was on to a good thing with the Greatest Hits album and put out one for the Supremes in 1967; it went to #1.

November 13 – Smiths Time Was Now

The Smiths ensured their place in the soundtrack of gloomy teens everywhere this day in 1984 with the release of their second album, Hatful of Hollow. Curiously enough for a band who’d only released one LP prior, this one was essentially a compilation album of standalone singles, B-sides and other recordings that hadn’t made the debut.

Although there’s an alternate version of “What Difference Does It Make?” and the singles “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “William It Was Really Nothing”, the album will always be loved for this single, which came to be the band’s signature piece – and the “Stairway to Heaven for the 80s” according to the label, Sire Records. Canadian fans agreed – CFNY-FM listeners voted “How Soon Is Now?” the #1 Song of All-time in 1991. To the south, L.A.’s influential KROQ listeners voted it among their top 20 of all-time a decade after that. It helped the album itself go platinum in Britain, better than their debut a few months earlier had done.

No one could accuse The Smiths of being lazy back then. Hatful of Hollow was the middle one of a trio of albums they released in less than one year, coming nine months after their self-titled debut and three months prior to Meat is Murder. Although it outsold the albums before and after it, it peaked at #7, lowest of any of the ones they released when still together.  Another interesting side note – Johnny Marr says that guitar tremolo sound so distinctive on “How Soon is Now?” was inspired by Bo Diddley’s guitar work.

November 4 – U2 Thundered Back To 21st Century Charts

U2 fans – and music retailers – had something to cheer on this day in 2002. Especially those in Ireland and Canada. That was the day they put out their second greatest hits album, The Best Of 1990-2000. It was the natural follow-up to ’98’s The Best Of 1980-1990 and certainly was destined to find its way into many a Christmas stocking.

This compilation covered four U2 albums, of which two (Achtung Baby, All That You Can’t Leave Behind) were very well-received bookending two of their somewhat less popular ones (the experimental Zooropa and Pop). It contained a sampling of the hit singles off those, including “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”, “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Mysterious Ways”, but was of significance to the diehard fans for three songs – two new and one existing but obscure.

The obscure was “Miss Sarajevo”, a 1995 song that certainly ranks with the more unusual in their catalog. It was a duet with operatic superstar Pavarotti, taken from an album entitled Original Soundtracks, Vol. 1. Produced by Eno, it was so experimental and odd that Island Records refused to release it under the “U2” name, so it came out under the pseudonym “The Passengers.” The album flopped, but the song was quite catchy despite its unusual vocals and was one they sometimes played live. They reclaimed it as a real U2 song for the greatest hits.

The new ones were the real draw for the longtime fans who probably already had most of the hits on the original albums. There was “The Hands That Built America” and the new single, “Electrical Storm.” The former was a song about the Irish immigrants who went to the U.S. and worked hard, by and large…a subject close to the band’s hearts. It came to notice soon after in the movie The Gangs of New York, even being nominated for an Academy Award for best original song. “Electrical Storm” was put out as a single, and with good reason. The song, comparing a lover’s quarrel to a thunderstorm was as Rolling Stone put it “a dizzying collaboration with William Orbit.” Orbit was an up-and-coming British producer who had recently done albums with Blur (13) and Madonna (Ray of Light). It’s hard to think of U2 as being old or conservative, particularly in the early-’00s but they had been on the scene for over two decades and apparently felt like a bit of new blood from a producer of a younger generation would help keep them relevant. It seemed to work, the song was well-received and sounded fresh without losing the U2 hallmarks. A slower, more acoustic version (the non-William Orbit mix, sometimes referred to as the Radio One Mix) was also made and available on some of the editions of the single.

All in all, the album and new songs were hits. Although, for all the attention U2 lavished on the U.S. in the ’80s with the Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum, it would seem the answer to the question “who loves U2 more than Americans?” would probably be “the Irish, British, Canadians and many Europeans.” “Electrical Storm” hit #2 in their Ireland, #5 in the UK and in Canada was their sixth-straight #1 hit. Oddly, the popularity didn’t extend across the border, where it only got to #77 in the U.S., making it one of their least successful singles to date. That was somewhat reflected in the album sales as well. Although it did OK in the States – #3 – it was a #1 hit in Canada, Ireland, Australia, and several other countries. It was certified platinum in the U.S., double that in Britain and 3X in Canada. Worth noting though is that those sales were less than half of what the Best of 1980-1990 had racked up, probably reflecting accurately fans opinion of their ’90s material vs. earlier works.

April 12 – Swedes Struck Gold Thinking About Mexico

They’d only been around for about three years, but by 1976 Abba had racked up enough hits (especially in Europe) to warrant a compilation album. And of course as every record label knows, the best way to spur on sales of that type of record is to add a new song or two, so even the diehard fans who already have the whole collection will be willing to pay for it. So the Swedes set out looking for a new song to add to theirs. They didn’t have to look far. They recorded “Fernando”, which was put out as a single on this day 45 years back.

They didn’t have to look far because it was already a song they were somewhat familiar with. The two men in the group, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson had composed the song the year before and one of the gals, Frida (aka Anni-Frid Lyngstad) had recorded it on a solo album of hers which hit #1 in their native Sweden. The men had helped out on her recording. The problem though lay in the lyrics. First, they were in Swedish, penned by Stig Anderson. They were something of a love song a girl was singing to a guy called Fernando, with lines like “the sorrow can be hard but the fact that friends let us down is something we have cope with.” Maybe they flow better in Swedish. Maybe not. “That lyric(s), so banal. I didn’t like it,” Bjorn said. He set out to write lyrics for the band to record in English. “I inherited the word ‘Fernando’ and thought long and hard ‘what does Fernando tell me?’”

After awhile, Fernando apparently told Bjorn about being an aging Mexican. The new lyricist says “I had this image of two old and scarred revolutionaries in Mexico, sitting outside at night talking about old memories.” The rest of the quartet approved and they recorded it late in ’75, and added it to the Greatest Hits package. Sometimes it works out that a brand new song added to a “best of” type record ends up being out of place. Not this one. It quickly did become one of Abba’s greatest, in fact their second biggest hit ever behind only “Dancing Queen.”

Remarkably, it only got to #2 in their homeland. In the U.S., it did fine but wasn’t a smash, getting only to #13. In Canada it did a little better, #4. Elsewhere though – boy, Fernando was the man of the hour. It was their third #1 in the UK, and fourth in Australia where they really like the song. There it was the biggest song of the year, spending no less than 14 weeks on top there – the longest run for any song until Ed Sheeran topped it in 2017. Similarly, it was not only the biggest-seller of the year in Sydney, Perth etc., but the biggest-selling single ever there until Elton’s tribute to Lady Di in 1997. With sales of over six million in ’76 alone worldwide, it marked Abba’s arrival on the Beatles/Stones/Elton level of popularity globally, and currently it still ranks as one of the 40 biggest-selling physical singles worldwide. It made their Greatest Hits greater too, pushing the album to 8X platinum in Britain and 6X in Canada. Remarkably, that pales in comparison to the sales of their later Gold “best of” compilation, which also included “Fernando”. Perhaps Bjorn should have renamed it “Midas”.

Dedicated to my dearly departed Dad, who had eclectic musical tastes but for some reason absolutely loved this song.

January 2 – Rhino Stampeded Into New Territory Of Old Music

In High Fidelity, small record store owner Rob ends up putting out a cassette by some kids who hang out in front of his Chicago (London in the book) store. In real life, further west, Richard Foos and Harold Bronson did something similar…but set their sights a bit higher. And on this day in 1978, Rhino Records put out it’s first album, Wildmania, by Wild Man Fischer.

Rhino Records was, initially, a small record store in Los Angeles, run by Foos and Bronson. One of the regulars in, and just outside of, their store was Fischer. Fischer was said to be a schizophrenic street person with a flare for music. He liked to compose songs on the spot, and three years earlier Rhino had actually put out a 7” single of him singing “Go To Rhino Records”. For a studio they used… their storage room. Bronson taped him singing in there with a portable cassette recorder! By ’78, they had a whole album worth of his material including songs like “Jimmy Durante”, “I’m A Truck” and “Do the Wildman!”.

The album actually sold a few hundred copies, including some by mail to Britain. It got the pair started looking for local, under-the-radar musical and even comedy talent and putting them on record. This was of course, long before the internet, but they realized the limitations of their own store and began putting out a mail-order catalog, made up to look like a comic book. They became something of a cult hit and in a few years, their records had distribution by Capitol Records. However, they also realized that there were a lot of good existing records that just couldn’t be found anymore. They bought the rights to a company called White Whale, which had the rights to acts including the Turtles, and they began re-issuing out of circulation records from their artists. When CDs began to sell, they saw the potential. Companies like CBS and Warner Bros. had limited capacity to churn out CDs and tended to limit their manufacturing to current, hot artists. Having trouble putting out enough Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins and Van Halen to meet demand, they had little ability to run small runs of old albums from largely-forgotten ’60s and ’70s artists. Enter Rhino.

They bought rights to many of the relatively obscure titles and re-issued them, either in entirety, or in the compilations the company soon became famous for. New Wave Hits of the 80s. Have A Nice Day (Best of the ’70s). Best of the Girl Groups. If you needed to have Michael Murphy’s “Wildfire”, David Soul not giving up on us baby, the Nails’ “88 Lines about 44 Women” or the theme from some ’70s cop show, Rhino was probably the place to find it. And unlike some companies that had put out reissues or compilations in the past, Rhino – despite their Radio Shack tape player studio origins – paid a lot of attention to quality. Whenever possible, they obtained the original tapes and remastered them for optimum digital quality and wrote extensive, often tongue-in-cheek but always informative, liner notes. Once in awhile they took a bit of a chance with lesser-known artists. For instance, probably when watching Michael J. Fox on his TV show Family Ties, they heard a great song played and found the obscure indie recording and bought it. They put “At this Moment” out as a single … and it got them, and the artist, Billy Vera & the Beaters, a #1 hit.

Of course, like most small success stories, they seldom stay small and seldom stay as true to their vision as they had begun. By the ’90s, they’d begun distribution with Atlantic and somewhere along the line, that company’s parent company, Time Warner, bought them out. Foos and Bronson left the company by mutual agreement by 2003 and their store closed in 2005 after years of selling records and even hosting occasional concerts – like this one by Soundgarden.

However, both halves of the entity remain active to this day. Warner liked the concept of Rhino and kept it as the “catalog development” branch of their company. The Rhino label now puts out oldies from the vast WB catalog including re-issues from the likes of ZZ Top, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, the Ramones and Chicago (who’ve largely been associated with Columbia, not WB) and at times put out rarities like a David Bowie – Morrissey single (“Cosmic Dancer”) just released, and a Led Zeppelin box set.

On the other side, Foos – who began his career almost 50 years back selling LPs out of his car in Philadelphia – has tried to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time and started Shout! Factory Records, which similarly puts out obscure old records on reissue and signs a few artists of their own, including the Under the Covers series by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. They had their work cut out for them with a video release of late – the DVD release of sitcom WKRP In Cincinnati, which provided a complex process of trying to license every song that had appeared in the original show. They managed to succeed with most, but not all of the artists.

I bet High Fidelity Rob would have liked Rhino Records.

December 19 – Number 1 Decades After They Ended – That’s Pretty Fab!

For a band which had already had one member pass on in an untimely manner and had been defunct for over twenty years, The Beatles were doing well in the ’90s! On this day in 1994, they knocked Nirvana out of the top spot on the Canadian charts, with Live At the BBC.

This was one of at least 54 compilation albums that have been put out using their material; in this case a two-disc, 133 minute collection of mono material (including some brief interview bits) taken from their early appearances on BBC Radio. It included some early versions of what would become Beatles staples, like “I Saw Her Standing there” and “All My Loving” as well as a number of covers of early-’60s R&B tunes, including Chuck Berry’s “I Got To Find My Baby” and “Monkey Business.” Despite the iffy sound quality and fact that the best tunes on it were already available in more polished form, Time said “as a time capsule, the set is invaluable.”

Apparently fans agreed; it went to #1 in the UK as well and #3 in the U.S. and is certified 8X platinum in Canada! More remarkably, they followed up this feat the next year, ending 1995 with the #1 album on Canada’s charts as well, the Anthology 1 compilation.