January 12 – Turntable Talk 10 : NY Landmark Inspired Landmark Song

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. Briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. To kick it off in 2023, our topic is They’re a Poet Don’t You Know It... we look at a song that made a great impact on our contributors for its lyrics.

Today we have Christian from Christian’s Music Musings. There he keeps his ear to the ground for new music worth listening, reviews concerts and shares Spotify lists to keep you listening. With an international background, will his pick originate from offshore?

Thanks for having me back again to share my thoughts for Turntable Talk about yet another interesting topic.

When it comes to songs, typically, I focus on melody, rhythm and sound before paying any attention to lyrics. This still goes back to the very beginning of my music journey as a seven or eight-year-old growing up in my native country Germany, i.e., a time when I essentially did not understand or speak one word of English. While as such, writing about favorite song lyrics may seem to be a tricky proposition, surprisingly, I knew right away which tune I would cover.

Some songs with great lyrics that come to mind are related to my all-time favorite band and its members: The Beatles’ The Inner Light (I always loved George Harrison’s wisdom), John Lennon’s Mother (you can literally feel John’s pain in his words and screaming) and Paul McCartney’s Here Today (one of the best tributes to John, which can still make me well up). I also love songs with a cinematic feel like Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down – in fact, I almost would have picked that tune. Finally, a great protest song like Neil Young’s Ohio (first released in June 1970 as a single by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) can get my attention as well.

Any of the aforementioned tunes would have been a good choice. Instead, I decided to go with a song that only became widely known with a remake that ended up topping the charts in various European countries. I’m happy to report I knew and came to dig the original long before that hit version came out. The song is Tom’s Diner by American folk singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega.

There are two versions of the tune that bookend Vega’s excellent sophomore album Solitude Standing, which came out in April 1987. Only the opener, an a cappella rendition, is relevant for the topic of this post. The closer, appropriately titled Tom’s Diner (Reprise), is an instrumental.

Tom’s Diner is like a mini movie, describing observations and memories by the narrator while having a cup of coffee at a diner. If you’ve ever been to a diner in New York City during the morning rush, you realize how brilliantly Vega captures the atmosphere. That’s why I love the lyrics of this tune.

Featuring Vega’s vocals only without any other singers also make Tom’s Diner an unusual a cappella song. While as such it’s very bare bones, I feel this approach works very well.

Initially, Tom’s Diner only appeared on Vega’s second album. Following the success of the record’s second single Luka, the tune was also released separately as a single in Europe. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tom’s Diner didn’t match the success of Luka, reaching no. 58 in the UK and no. 26 in Ireland – that is at first.

In 1990, British electronic outfit DNA created a dance remix. Initially, it was released unauthorized by Vega, her label A&M or her publisher on a limited basis for distribution to clubs as “Oh Suzanne” – a pretty gutsy move in the litigious music industry! After consulting with Vega who apparently liked the interpretation, A&M (her record company) decided to buy the song from DNA rather than taking them to court for copyright infringement.

It turned out to be a smart decision. The remix ended up topping the charts in Austria, Germany, Greece and Switzerland. It also climbed to no. 2 in the UK on the Official Singles Chart and no. 5 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. That said, I find it pretty atrocious!

Following are some additional tidbits from Songfacts:

Suzanne Vega wrote this song while eating breakfast at Tom’s Restaurant on the corner of Broadway and 112th Street in New York City. Tom’s has another famous place in pop culture as well: it was Jerry Seinfeld’s hangout in his hit sitcom Seinfeld. On the show, where it was called “Monk’s Cafe,” the “Tom’s” was cropped out so the exterior sign just said “Restaurant,” and the interior shots were done with TV magic on a sound stage.

The song has been sampled many times by other artists, including Tupac for his track “Dopefiend’s Diner,” Aaliyah on her single “Hot Like Fire”, Drake on a cut titled “Juice” and David Guetta on his tune “Let It Be Me.”

Giorgio Moroder covered the song for his 2015 Déjà Vu album. His version features vocals by Britney Spears. “The song doesn’t have a big range, and I added a bridge and some instrumental stuff,” the EDM godfather told Billboard magazine. “Britney sounds so good, you would hardly recognize her.”

When German engineers were developing the MP3 file format, they used this song to test their creation, checking for loss of fidelity. They picked an a cappella tune because they were particularly concerned about degrading the human voice.

Fall Out Boy sampled this song and used various elements from it on their 2014 hit “Centuries.”

The German rock groups AnnenMayKantereit and Giant Rooks recorded a cover of the song in 2019 that went viral on TikTok in March 2022 as people used the singing duo’s unique and expressive vocals to soundtrack videos on the platform. Their version peaked at #63 on the UK singles chart and #78 on the Hot 100.

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October 11 – Two Albums, One Man, Thousands Of Miles Apart

They say history never repeats itself, but for Billy Joel, it kinda did…although with quite differing results. Twice he’s put out new albums on October 11, four years apart. Both times he was perhaps a bit rushed with them, needing to follow-up a hit. One time it fell short, one time it worked exceptionally well. On this day in 1974, he put out the oft-forgotten Streetlife Serenade. In 1978, 52nd Street.

Streetlife Serenade was his third album, coming less than a year after his breakthrough one, Piano Man. The problem was, as allmusic would later note, “the problem is that Joel had put all of his best songs on Piano Man.” He felt rushed to push out another record, made more difficult by the fact that he was touring extensively to build up his reputation. He spent the summer opening for the Beach Boys.

The resulting album was a mixed bag of ten songs, including a couple of instrumentals, “Mexican Connection” and “Root Beer Rag.” Arguably making the situation worse, proud New Yorker Joel was sent to Los Angeles to record it, with largely session musicians (many of whom he didn’t know, even though they included some talented ones like Larry Knetchel on bass and Art Munson on guitar.) He was feeling sort of displaced, something that came through on “Los Angelenos”, a song echoing “Hotel California” in looking at the city’s appeal to outsiders and its underside that was far more depressing.

It still was ambitious in places, he says of it “I was trying to be Debussy on the title track. It didn’t work.” And it contained one song many consider worthy of his “best of” lists, “The Entertainer.”

Reviews were poor when it was even noticed at all in the day. Allmusic later gave it 3-stars, calling it “a bit of a slump”, one “spiked with, of all things, Rockford Files-synthesizers and ragtime.” Eventually the album would go platinum at home, but it only made #35 on the charts and “The Entertainer” was the only, minor, hit song on it.

Fast forward four years and he seemed to get the knack of it. He’d had another huge record, The Stranger, and was once again wanting to (or wanted to by Columbia Records) put out an album quickly. 52nd Street came out a year and two weeks after The Stranger, and in many minds, outshone it.

Billy was feeling more confident, and likely more at home, for this one, which he recorded in the Big Apple… at a studio on 52nd Street, as it turns out. Not only was the studio there, so too was the headquarters of Columbia. The street had once been the center of live music, especially jazz, in the city and Joel picked up on that theme a little. He worked with some of his regular backing band, including drummer Liberty Devito, and producer Phil Ramone but also brought in some jazz talent from around the city including 10-time Grammy winner Dave Grusin to arrange horns on “Rosalinda’s Eyes.”

The nine song album included several that became standards in his catalog and live shows, including the hits “My Life” and “Big Shot”, plus “Honesty”, “Until the Night” and the slightly jazzy “Zanzibar”. That one was referred to as a “direct homage to Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)” by allmusic.

Big Shot” showed a more rock & roll side to Joel than people were used to. Its scathing message was a general potshot and self-absorbed socialites, which many figured he wrote for Bianca Jagger. He denies that and says he never dated her… but did write it after going to dinner with her and Mick Jagger, so perhaps one can do the math about which Jagger was the target. It hit the top 20 in North America, but was overshadowed by the anthemic “My Life”. That made it to #3 in the U.S. and Canada and #6 in Australia and earned him his sixth platinum single of the ’70s alone.

Reviews were better for it than Streetlife Serenade, with Rolling Stone grading it 3-stars and the Record Mirror and allmusic both 4-stars. The latter noted “instead of breaking away from the sound of The Stranger, Joel chose to expand on it, making it more sophisticated and somewhat jazzy.” They concluded “he dazzles with his melodic skills…there are no weak songs.”

The public agreed, making it his first #1 album at home. It also topped Canadian and Australian charts, and made the British top 10. It ended up being the biggest-selling record of ’79 in the U.S., currently being 7X platinum.

Joel waited a year and a half for the follow-up, Glass Houses but would repeat the fast-followup once more, with An Innocent Man following the Nylon Curtain by under a year. However, perhaps he either ran out of songs, or out of patience with the process as he last put out new rock/pop music in 1993, despite remaining a very popular live performer.

August 26 – Seattle Superstar Created Big Apple Music Landmark

The landmark lives on, long after its founder passed away. Jimi Hendrix lived just long enough to open his own Electric Lady Studio in New York on this day in 1970.

The rather non-descript, three-storey brick building at 52 W. Eighth Street in the “Greenwich Village” neighborhood had been a nightclub since 1930, originally called the Village Barn, then in the incarnation Jimi knew, The Generation. There he’d seen a number of great, and varied acts ranging from B.B. King to Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company. He was upset when it closed in 1968, and quickly bought it. His initial intent was to reopen as a nightclub. Probably fortunately for all, his friend, a studio engineer named Eddie Kramer told him that was a bad idea – the club had been losing money and there were many of them nearby – and that he should turn it into his own recording studio. It made utter sense since Jimi was a noted perfectionist when it came to his recording environment and had, according to Kramer spent $150 000 the year before on renting studios (something akin to close to a million dollars now.) He’d worked in three different studios, in London and the Big Apple on his recently-completed Electric Ladyland album.

That made sense to the guitar great, so he got a talented architect, John Storyk to help him come up with the plans and oversee re-construction. While there were many good architects around, Storyk had another quality which made him invaluable – he was a trained acoustician. He understood exactly how to get the specific sound quality people wanted from a space.

The conversion didn’t go smoothly though, running both late and well over budget. A flood, changes required for the plumbing system and delays in getting permits from the city resulted in Jimi having to go to Warner Bros. Records to get a “six-figure loan” to get it completed. Which it was, in August ’70.

Hendrix himself was first to try it, recording a few things there while final construction was still going on around him. He made sure the acoustics were great, the equipment state of the art, but the atmosphere easy-going. Some walls were painted into psychedelic murals, and he had some round windows installed allowing for controllable amounts of ambient light. He wrapped that up on Aug.22 and held the opening party on the 26th. Among those in attendance, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ron Wood and Patti Smith. Smith remembers talking to Hendrix just outside that night. She says he ”told me his vision of what he wanted to do with the studio. He dreamed of amassing musicians from all over the world in Woodstock, and they would sit in a field in a circle and play and play…until they found a common language. Eventually they would record this abstract universal language of music in his studio.”

Needless to say, that never happened, and in all likelihood wouldn’t even if Hendrix hadn’t sadly died just a month later. What did happen though was that the studio became one of the country’s most in-demand and respected ones. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was the place to be. Carly Simon recorded her much-touted debut there, then Stevie Wonder came in to do several records, including Talking Book and Fulfingness First Finale. Kiss viewed it as a sort of second home when they were rising to international fame and Led Zeppelin did some work in it as well, including supposedly a record’s worth of Elvis covers which has never been released. David Bowie dropped in with John Lennon to record his first American #1 hit, “Fame.” Later, the Rolling Stones would use it to record much of Emotional Rescue, then mix Tattoo You and Chic would make their disco smashes in it. “Imagine what it’s like to have a studio built by flower-power, hippie, acid-tripping kinds of people,” their guitarist Nile Rodgers laughs.

Albums ranging from Foreigner 4 to the Clash’s Combat Rock to Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell came to be in Electric Lady. However, in the ’90s, its usage dropped and it faced some tough times, but it was rescued, temporarily by Soulquarians. That was a loosely-aligned collective of Black musicians who hung out, jammed and recorded there. Among them were The Roots and Erykah Badu. However, for all the work they did, it resulted in only a few hit records and demand for the studio declined more. Once they moved out, producer Mark Ronson suggested “the glory days had sort of ended.”

But perhaps they weren’t. In 2010, it was sold and the new owners decided to revamp it. They thoroughly renovated it, brought in new, up-to-the-minute recording and mixing equipment and added mixing rooms to its existing capacity (which includes four separate studios). That worked, and it’s rebounded to be one of the country’s busiest studios again in the 2010s and since. One day in 2015, seven different recording sessions were being worked on simultaneously there, including the Black Keys, Rod Stewart, Lana Del Rey and Jean Batiste. Adele and Lourde have recorded there of late and U2 made their Songs of Innocence at it.

A place where artists liked to hang out and could work in with top-notch equipment. An idea so simple it’s a wonder few since Jimi have decided to do the same.

August 15 – Beatles Saw A Mountain Of Fans

Seems like it’s a good day for a big show if you are in New York. For starters, on this day back in 1965 The Beatles played the biggest concert of their career and ushered in a new era. That was when they started an all-important North American tour with a sell-out at Shea Stadium in the Big Apple. With about 55 600 in attendance, it was not only their biggest crowd, it was the first really big stadium rock concert.

The show came only a year and a half after they first visited the U.S., bursting on the scene with their famous Ed Sullivan appearance. In the time between, they’d scored an incredible seven #1 songs and were riding high on the success of Help, which had just been released. It was according to some of their biographers, “the ultimate pinnacle of Beatlemania.”

They had to be helicoptered in, and John Lennon would later say “at Shea Stadium, I saw the top of the mountain.” Ringo Starr said “what I remember most about the concert was that we were so far away from the crowd…it was very big and very strange.” Indeed, as unlike most modern concerts in such venues, the crowd was limited to the actual stands – there was no on-field seating or standing. So with the stage placed in the shallow outfield area, some of the more distant seats were in the range of 400 feet away!

The Young Rascals acted as an opening act, and then Ed Sullivan himself introduced the Fab Four, saying “now, ladies and gentlemen, honored by their country, decorated by the Queen and loved here in America, here are the Beatles!” The 55 000 fans (including Keith Richards and Mick Jagger) went wild and stayed loud throughout the 12-song show, often drowning out the actual music which was being played on a rather small and inferior sound system. They opened with “Twist and Shout” and did early classics like “I Feel Fine”, “Ticket to Ride” and “Help” before finishig with “I’m Down.” While predictably Paul and John dominated the set, both Ringo and George got a turn to have the spotlight, the former singing “Act Naturally” (later in the tour he’d do “I Wanna Be Your Man” instead) and the latter singing “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby.”

They’d spend the rest of the month doing shows in eight more American cities as well as Toronto, typically playing the same set list. In Atlanta and Chicago they played similar baseball stadiums but to smaller crowds; in other cities they played smaller outdoor venues or indoor arenas.

For those who wanted to relive the New York show, a 50-minute video was made and debuted on the BBC in 1966, then shown on ABC in the States a year later. It contained many of the songs they performed as well as little clips of them on their way into the stadium and getting ready in the baseball clubhouse. Due to the noise of the crowd during the concert, producers had them overdub some tracks and the audio from “Act Naturally” was scrapped totally and replaced with the original studio recording.

The Beatles would play Shea once more, almost a year to the day later, but to a somewhat smaller and perhaps less enthusiastic crowd. That was the famous tour in which they had death threats and were met with protests in the South due to John Lennon’s statements regarding them being more popular than Jesus. It would then be over 40 years before a Beatle would be doing a concert at the home of the Mets; Paul McCartney was a guest at Billy Joel’s concert there which closed the stadium in 2008.

Perhaps the ’65 show gave promoters an idea. As we mentioned, August 15 seems a popular day for concerts in the Empire State. Woodstock kicked off upstate on the date in 1969 and in 1991, something in the range of 600 000 people went to Central Park in the city to attend a free Paul Simon concert.

April 28 – Heart Of Glass, Record Of Platinum

Was it one of disco’s last stands, or the new wave crashing onshore for the first time? Could have been either, or maybe both, but either way Blondie found a way to be cool by trying to be “uncool”. “Heart of Glass” hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1979.

Blondie came out of the New York City punk scene in the mid-’70s but found their first glimmer of success across the sea in Britain, where their first two albums sold decently and the song “Denis” had been a gold-selling, #2 hit the year before. Success at home however, had eluded them. So Chrysalis Records decided it was time to bring in a “name” producer to help them with their third album, which ended up being Parallel Lines. Chapman, ironically, had also probably had more success in the UK than U.S. through working with acts like Sweet and Suzi Quatro, but was a well-respected presence in music on both continents. What he found when he turned up at the New York studio didn’t please him. They were “a classic New York underground band…they didn’t give a f***…they didn’t want to work too hard.” He saw potential there, but also a bunch of rather lazy, irritable musicians. So “I went in there like Adolf Hitler, and said (or screamed perhaps) ‘You’re going to make a great record and that means you’re going to start playing better!’”

That they did, grudgingly, and quickly put down eight or nine tracks. But they needed more so they played an early demo of this one for him. At the time they nicknamed it “The Disco Song.” They sometimes played it in their set, because as Debbie Harry put it “it wasn’t too cool in our social set to play disco. We did it because we wanted to be uncool.” By then, the song was about four years old and she says “we’d tried it as a ballad, as reggae, but it never worked.” Chapman however “liked it. Thought it was interesting, and started to pull it into focus.” Interestingly, she’d said prior to the album’s release that she really liked the work of European producer Giorgio Moroder, then best-known for working with Donna Summer. “It’s commercial, but it’s good,” she said, “that’s the kind of stuff I want to do.” Which “Heart of Glass” not only turned out a little like, but in time got Moroder’s attention. He worked with Debbie the following year on the hit “Call Me.” 

One of the ways he did that was by getting drummer Clem Burke to use a Roland drum machine for it. It became the one of the first huge hit singles to do so. Eventually, they made some five different versions or remixes of it, with most versions of the album having a full-length 5:50” take on it (which also was the 12” single) and the American 7” single being whittled to 3:22”.

Parallel Lines came out late in ’78, to little initial interest at home, although it did get some notice in Britain again, where “Hanging on the Telephone” had hit the top 10. “Heart of Glass” seemed almost an afterthought, being the fourth song chosen to be put out as a single. Turns out, fourth time was the charm. As Pitchfork put it “after two albums of middling success, a reinvention was in order. ‘Heart of Glass’ came just in time.” They add “by melding disco’s then commerciality with (Harry’s) stunning image and big city cool, ‘Heart of Glass’ propelled Blondie from cult status to household name.”

That it did, though not without a little hesitation. The lyrics (at times Harry’s ascribed to no one in particular, just a general feeling of relationships being tiring but at other times says was inspired by a stalker Chris Stein saved her from) refer to love as a “pain in the ass”…which was rather racy language for mainstream radio in the ’70s. Some radio stations balked at playing it at first, others beeped out the three-letter “four letter word.” Obviously enough played it though; the song hit #1 in not only the U.S., but the UK, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and other lands including New Zealand where it ended up the year’s biggest single (in Canada, it came in at #2 for the year). It earned them platinum singles in Canada and the UK (where they’d not have another one until 20 years later with “Maria”) and a gold one in the States.

If one looks at it as a disco single, there’s nothing surprising about its status. It replaced another disco hit, “Knock on Wood” by Amii Stewart at the top, and followed a string of disco hits at #1 including “I Will Survive”, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and “Tragedy.” However, if one considers it a “new wave” or post-punk song, it was breaking new ground – the first such song to top U.S. charts. Making one lean towards the latter is the surprising fact that it wasn’t a dance hit in North America… it only rose to #58 on Billboard‘s Dance Music charts.

Disco, new wave or pop, no matter what you term it, “Heart of Glass” was a shining example of late-’70s hit music at its best. It’s actually risen on Rolling Stone‘s all-time best of charts, being ranked at #138 in last year’s rankings, up by about a hundred spots since the last time they tried to compile such a list. Pitchfork, meanwhile consider it the 18th greatest song of the ’70s (they had David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” as #1 in case you were wondering.) Meaning, they found a pretty cool way to be uncool!

January 24 – Diamond A National Gem

Happy birthday to a performer who really is a “living legend.” Billboard‘s 25th most-successful artist of all-time, an inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame plus a lifetime award winner from the Grammys and a career that spanned almost 60 years – Neil Diamond is musical gem, and he’s 81 today.

Granted, he’s not a singer now considered edgy or ground-breaking, although he might have been that when young. Nonetheless, not only has he put out 32 studio albums of his own, plus two film soundtracks and had 25 top 20 singles in “America” – to name-check one of his trademark songs – but he’s penned songs made into hits from acts as diverse as Elvis Presley to UB40. Not many resumes in music equal that.

Diamond was born and mainly raised in New York City, being a classmate of Barbra Streisand no less. He began writing poetry as a youth and found it helped him impress girls, always a winning incentive to young artists! When he turned 16, he was given a guitar, learned to play it a bit and happened to see Pete Seeger in concert. It planted the seeds in his head that grew into an unquenchable desire for a career in music. So much so that he quite university (where he was studying medicine but attending on a fencing scholarship!) to write songs for a living. Initially, he did OK, in terms of popularity, selling a song a week often in the early-’60s. But in the Big Apple, and as an unknown, that barely paid his bills. He signed briefly to Columbia Records, and recorded a few well-reviewed but flop singles with his school buddy Jack Packer. They quickly dropped him, and he went back to writing full-time in the famous Brill Building, with increasing success. One thing that made him unusual was that he mostly wrote entire songs by himself. Many of the best writers of the day worked in pairs (like Carole King and Gerry Goffin) with one doing mostly lyrics and the other the composing. Before long The Monkees did his “I’m a Believer” and “A Little Bit You, A Little Bit Me” and he was off and running.

Lulu and Deep Purple were soon covering his tunes and he was recording himself again, this time with a division of MCA. Although good as a songwriter, obviously, he says “I have a love-hate relationship with songwriting. I love it because it’s so satisfying when it works. I hate it because it forces you to dig inside yourself.” “Solitary Man” was the first one he recorded himself that charted at all (although surprisingly, it peaked at #21 in the U.S. in its best, second run up the charts) so he says it’s always been a personal favorite. Another is 1980’s “America,” from the Jazz Singer, a soundtrack to a movie he starred in. “It’s the story of my grandparents. It’s my gift to them,” he explains, “it’s very real to me.” It gained import through the years when it was used in the 100th Anniversary celebration of the Statue of Liberty, played at Vietnam veteran’s assemblies and taken on as an unofficial “anthem” for New York after the 9-11 attacks. And of course, we can’t forget “Sweet Caroline,” a song Boston and its Red Sox have made their own. As the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame put it, “his ability to put words to the human experience explains his commercial success, his fans of all stripes and his timelessness.”

Along the way, he was highly successful through the ’70s, and he re-signed to Columbia for a then-record million dollars an album, minimum. The label boss Clive Davis said “he was handsome, he moved well on stage and a real sense of drama. It was all there – real star quality.” Apparently so, as he quickly scored over a dozen hits including #1 singles “Song Sung Blue” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” a duet with his old schoolmate Barbra, following his first “Cracklin’ Rosie”). Although sales dipped some in the ’80s after his 5X platinum The Jazz Singer, he had established himself as one of the top stage draws, both in Las Vegas and on the road. In 1986, for example, Billboard listed him as the top solo concert draw, despite not having a major hit since 1982.

Sadly, Diamond essentially retired in 2018 because of worsening Parkinson’s Disease. The same year the Grammys awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award.

October 15 – New York Sire-d A New Sound

The shape and sound of music for decades to come was altered on this day back in 1975. Like many big things however, very few paid attention to it at the time. It was the day The Ramones signed their first record contract, with the somewhat avant garde Sire Records label.

Things had happened quickly for The Ramones, but it was hardly effortless (even if it may have sounded it!). They’d only formed the year before when school friends Doug Colvin, Jeffrey Hyman, Thomas Erdeleyi and John Cummings started a garage rock band. This was a good thing, because, well, none of them were very good. Cummings would soon after run into Paul Simonon at a concert and asked the now-famous bassist if he was in a band. Simonon said yes, but “we call ourselves the Clash but we’re not good enough.” Cummings responded “wait til you see us, we stink! We’re lousy”, encouraging the other to just go out and play. By the way, by that time Cummings had become Johnny Ramone – all of the lads decided to pick new names using the “Ramone” family name.

Good or not, The Ramones worked hard. They quickly became regulars at both Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, both in New York City, and had played 74 shows at the latter in 1974 alone. The shows were no Rolling Stones or Zep shows of course. The Ramones typical set was no more than 20 minutes of hard, fast driving rock. Journalist Legs McNeil remembers “these guys were all wearing leather jackets…it was just this wall of sound….this was something completely new.”

The people at Sire thought so too. Co-founder Richard Goettehrer says of them, “I really saw something fresh happening. We’d been bombarded by disco and progressive bands, but to me, this almost felt like a rebirth and return to the beginnings of rock & roll.”

So they signed up the proto-punks and sent them to the studio early the next year to record their debut LP in one week, at a cost of around $6000. Although it was far from a hit (it failed to hit the US top 100 and took a couple of decades to sell to gold status), it was ground-breaking and influential. As The Ramones continued to record through the ’70s and ’80s, their following grew, although they never hit superstar status based on sales…“Pet Sematary”, from a Stephen King movie was arguably their biggest hit, getting to #4 on the Alternative chart. However, through influence it’s a different story.

Sire was probably the only significant label at the point who would’ve had interest in them. Goettehrer (who’d been a successful songwriter in the ’60s, penning tunes including “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “Hang on Sloopy”) had founded the company with an idea of bringing underground British acts to North American attention -something they’d do very well in the ’80s with artists like Depeche Mode, the Smiths and Madness being theirs over here, no matter who they had signed with in Britain – but quickly also developed a reputation for looking for unusual, cutting edge bands on this side of the ocean. That was especially true in New York City, where they found not only the Ramones but Talking Heads, and briefly Blondie.

Bands from Pearl Jam and Nirvana to Motorhead and Green Day now point to the Ramones as a significant influence, which made them a shoo-in to make the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. They note they “revitalized rock and roll” with their “back to basics (approach): simple, speedy, stripped-down rock and roll songs…no makeup, no light shows, no nonsense.”

August 15 – Concert Idea So Nice, Simon Tried It Twice

82 degrees and sunny – a nice day to spend in the park, and thousands of New Yorkers did just that 30 years ago to see a hometown hero perform. Paul Simon held his Concert in the Park on this day in 1991. The free concert was reminiscent of the one he and Art Garfunkel had played ten years earlier, to a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands and enthusiastic reviews.

This time though, there’d be no Garfunkel. As the snubbed singer told the New York Times “dejectedly” the day before, “he hadn’t been asked to perform,” adding “my guess is would hurt his sense of stature.” Simon wouldn’t be alone on stage of course. While he played his guitar and sang, he was joined by a talented backing band consisting mostly of World Music stars, many of whom he’d used on his Graceland album, such as South African guitarist Ray Phiri and Brazilian drummer Cyro Baptista. No small surprise, as he was finishing up his tour for 1990’s Rhythm of the Saints, a World Music-influenced effort following his massively successful, African-sounding Graceland.

Once again, Simon managed to offer the concert for free (for people there; it was broadcast live on HBO for those who couldn’t attend) and drew a happy and large crowd, although how large is a matter of great debate. Like some politicians of late, Simon might have fudged the numbers upwards and claimed 600 000 people were there. Some critical journalists said only about 50 000 people could fit into the area of the park he used. Based on aerial photos, the truth was probably somewhere in between. No matter the exact tally, it was a huge crowd and Simon didn’t disappoint.

He played for nearly two hours, running through a set combining a number of songs on his recent album with many of his older hits and finishing with some of his best-loved Simon & Garfunkel ones. Starting with the little-known “The Obvious Child” he went into Graceland‘s “The Boy in the Bubble” before hitting his gold record chest for ones like “Kodachrome,” “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard”, “Graceland” and “Loves Me Like A Rock” before finishing up strong with “America,” “The Boxer”, “Cecilia” and “The Sounds of Silence.” Although he did change up a tune or two (like the “Africanized version” of ‘Cecilia’”, as allmusic describe it), the tunes were well-accepted and the crowd pleased. As the L.A. Times put it, “it was clear from the audience’s reaction to the music of Simon’s celebrated Graceland period that Ladysmith Black Mombaza would have caused a bigger stir than Simon’s old partner.”

As good as the crowd reaction was, the aftermath wasn’t the commercial success the singer had hoped for. He put it out as the double-album Paul Simon’s Concert in the Park, on LP, cassette and CD as well as a video version on VHS and laserdisc. However, unlike the concert a decade earlier which became quite a hit as an album, this one peaked at just #74 on the album chart and the single, “Still Crazy After All These Years” was ignored entirely. So poorly did it do at the checkout that the label never bothered to re-release it on DVD, although curiously PBS recently did that themselves, offering it as a “reward” for donors.

Despite its poor showing sales-wise, it was regarded as a quite good listen. Allmusic gave it 4-stars, saying it was an “enjoyable and surprisingly cohesive career summation” and Simon’s biographer Chris Charlesworth declared it was “the album to have if you want only one Paul Simon album.” Which, we guess might be one more album of his than Art Garfunkel wants!

July 29 – Billy ‘Bridge’d Gaps Between Sounds

On this day in 1986, one of the most popular artists of the previous decade put out his last really great album… to date. Billy Joel put out his tenth studio album, The Bridge, 35 years ago.

Joel had been on a great roll at that point. It seemed like the last of many singles off his 1983’s An Innocent Man were starting to fade from radio when he put out a wildly successful (as in 23X platinum) Greatest Hits package which included another new hit (“You’re Only Human”) the year before. The Bridge kept the momentum, more or less.

Billy was at that time newly married to Christie Brinkley and had just become a father, and the maturity in his life showed through on the album which was undeniably eclectic. Rolling Stone considered it the final part of a trilogy “with 1982’s outwards-looking Nylon Curtain and 1983’s backwards-looking An Innocent Man” this one presenting “a modest yet moving portrait of a mature man.” Ergo, two of the most endearing tracks on it deal with coming to terms with who one is (“Big Man on Mulberry Street”) and with the modern world (“Modern Woman” noting that “rock and roll used to be for kicks nowadays it’s politics” and wondering at how the lady of the house may now be the breadwinner , a shock for “an old fashioned guy” etc.)

The album veered musically from pop sub-genre to sub-genre, from the slow lounge music of his piano duet with Ray Charles, “Baby Grand”, to neo-big band jazz with his “Big Man on Mulberry Street” and the big, bold ballads he’d always excelled at (“This is the Time”) to more new wave-influenced sounds than we were used to from Billy, such as “Running on Ice” (apparently musically-inspired by The Police whom Joel was a big fan of at that point.)

Fans approved…by and large. Although it peaked at just #7 at home and #10 in Canada (doing best in Australia, where it was a #2 hit), it’s long run on the charts let it sell double platinum in both North American countries and be in the four million sales worldwide level. Not quite the mass appeal of An Innocent Man or his big ’70s releases but still a pretty significant success. Interestingly, it was one of the last albums Columbia put out on 8-track. We surmise this had little to do with its million-seller status!

The singles “Modern Woman” and “A Matter of Trust” both were top 10s in the U.S., and “This is the Time” gave him his 20th top 20 hit.

At the time, Rolling Stone considered it “much more appealing” than his brasher, youthful work. Even Robert Christagau gave him a nod, noting Billy was every bit “Ray Charles co-equal on ‘Baby Grand.’”

Although Joel would put out two more pop/rock studio albums and score a bigger hit single three years later with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, The Bridge was the last time he worked with his usual producer Phil Ramone and generally be seen as the last truly significant album. However, he has of course stayed busy, dabbling in classical music and having a sort of residency at Madison Square Gardens (where he sold out shows monthly for more than five years until the pandemic intervened, though he has a new run scheduled for there beginning again this December) … and recently he hinted he might just get back to the studio once again. Perhaps in time, we’ll see the ’86 album as “the bridge” between halves of his career.

July 3 – ‘Gloria’ Made Laura A Star

Today we remember a lady allmusic declare was “a one woman hit factory at the dawn of the MTV era.” Laura Branigan was born this day in 1952, near New York City.

Laura was apparently destined to be a star at a young age. She went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts – which boasted the likes of Kirk Douglas and Grace Kelly among its alumni – around the same time Kate Jackson and Kim Cattrall did. Although acting appealed to Laura (she’d later get small guest spots on TV shows like Chips and Knight Rider) music was her first love. She joined a band called Meadow at school as their singer, and while that didn’t go anywhere, it did get her enough attention to become a backup singer for Leonard Cohen on an international tour in ’76. That in turn led her to be signed to Atlantic Records by the decade’s end.

Much like Sheryl Crow a decade or so later, Laura’s first album with them couldn’t find a “sound” and was eventually scrapped before hitting the shelves. The next effort though went far better! The 1982, self-titled album mixed upbeat pop ditties and slower, romantic ballads and became the first of three-straight to go gold or platinum at home. It was driven by the huge hit “Gloria”, a song which had been a European hit in Italian for Umberto Tozzi three years earlier. The powerful Branigan anthem hit #1 in Canada and Australia, and #2 in the U.S., earning her platinum records in all three and quickly making her a household name. The song spent 22 weeks in the top 40, the longest run for any song in the decade. Oddly, it had a second-life among sports fans when St. Louis Blues fans picked it as their theme song during that team’s 2019 Stanley Cup-winning season. It has no direct tie-in to hockey nor St. Louis, but the story goes that five Blues were watching a football game in a bar when some drunk kept yelling “Play Gloria!”. Eventually the DJ did and the bar went wild, and the players thought “hey – we could use that kind of energy in our arena!” They got the stadium sound crew to play it in breaks and sure enough, the fans loved it!

Her success continued through much of the ’80s with four more U.S. top 20 singles, including “Self Control” which hit #1 in Canada and a number of European countries. Laura wrote some of her own songs, but her hits tended to be other people’s, often ones written by Diane Warren (“Solitaire” among others) or Michael Bolton (including “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” and “I Found Someone”, later a hit by Cher.). By 1990, her domestic popularity had waned although she was still popular in Europe, however she took some time off from music to tend to her husband who battled cancer for years. He had passed away and she was working on a comeback in the early 2000’s, working on new music and briefly appearing on New York stages as Janis Joplin in a musical called Love, Janis. If that pairing seems a little odd to you, it did to her too! She was soon replaced, which she said left her “sort of relieved. My voice isn’t anything like Janis Joplin’s and there were 19 of her songs in the show.”

Sadly, Laura died of an aneurysm in 2004 at age 52.