April 25 – Prince Was Positively Perturbed By The Times

It was the mid-’80s. A sign of that was that Prince had a major hit on the radio, as he seemed to for most of the middle few years of that decade. On this day in 1987, his “Sign O’ the Times” peaked at #3 in the U.S. It was the title track of his ninth album… in just 8 years. And it was no quickly-assembled throwaway effort either. Rather it was a 79 minute, double album to boot. Even those who weren’t big fans had to hand it to Prince for energy and ambition that seemed to outpace all his contemporaries.

Sign o’ the Times was recorded in L.A., which was a bit of a departure for the proud Minnesotan, but was issued on his own Paisley Park label, as were his previous two albums. What was a bit different was a return to his debut album in one way – Prince himself did the whole album, more or less bottom to top. While he’d had great success with his backing band The Revolution on some earlier albums including Purple Rain, on this album for the most part it was written, played, sung and produced by Prince with no outside help. Such was the case with the title track.

Sign o’ the Times” had Prince using a drum machine and a Fairlight synthesizer to make the music, and an “introspective” Sunday for him to pen the somewhat dark and blunt lyrics. The line “Sister killed her baby ‘cuz she couldn’t afford to feed it, yet we’re still sending people to the moon” points to the song’s beginnings.

It’s said that Prince was irritated, and confused after the Space Shuttle explosion in ’86 that the country planned to keep steaming ahead with NASA. He was “surprised that people would still be interested in space travel…especially when there were so many problems in the U.S.” As an aside, were Prince to be alive today, he’d get no argument at all here at A Sound Day about that. Among the problems he pointed to in the song were gang violence, urban poverty, and of course the big problem of the ’80s, AIDS, as in “skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.”

The bleakish single made #3 in the U.S., keeping his hot streak running. He’d had three #1 and two #2 hits in the previous three years, give or take. It topped the R&B charts and made it to #5 in Canada, #10 in the UK. The album itself got to #6 and went platinum in the States; it went 4X platinum in Canada making it one of only two of his records that did better elsewhere than his homeland. It was helped along by the next single, the more upbeat “U Got The Look,” a duet with Sheena Easton… a sign perhaps that no matter how dour the times, Prince was always up for a little bit of dancing and romancing!

April 8 – Pink Floyd Rises Up To Red Bear

It was a big week for Pink Floyd 28 years back, with their 1994 album The Division Bell debuting on British charts at #1. It was a momentous moment for them and their fans too. It was only the second one for the band since their acrimonious split with Roger Waters and it came a full six-and-a-half years after their previous album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason. In the years between, Waters had put out two solo records and kept them all busy in court suing over the use of the name “Pink Floyd.”

Unlike some of the previous Floyd albums, this one was put together rather easily and convivially, with most of the recording being done on David Gilmour’s large houseboat. He, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Mason, as well as Bob Ezrin (who co-produced it with Gilmour) recorded it at a leisurely pace while Gilmour’s girlfriend, journalist/novelist Polly Samson joined them and co-wrote a good chunk of the lyrics with her beau. The general, loose theme of it all was “communications,” or generally interpreted to be that, although Rolling Stone pointed to “lyrics so opaque and inert, one cannot hope to plumb their meaning.” Mason suggested the album was about “people making choices, yeas and nays” while Gilmour bristled at suggestions that seemingly prickly songs like “Poles Apart” were aimed at his former bandmate. “People can invent and relate reasons in their personal was,” he said but insisted he wasn’t “conjuring Roger up.”

The album had their trademark superb craftsmanship and playing, and the usual share of Pink Floyd quirks and flourishes, like using a sample of Stephen Hawking speaking on the song “Keep Talking.” Mason loved how it “feels more homemade (than the previous album)…a band playing together in one space.” The easy-going feel didn’t win over critics that well though. Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D” and Rolling Stone a so-so 2.5-stars. They cited it having an OK “quieter, more contemplative mood” than most of the band’s efforts but thought it “seems to cry out for someone with an over-riding zeal, a passion…in short, a nettlesome overbearing visionary like Roger Waters.”

Fans didn’t care much though. Apart from spending a month at #1 in the UK, it topped charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia and a good chunk of Europe, and sold seven million worldwide – not Dark Side of the Moon territory (and actually fewer than the predecessor despite doing better in the States) and far from a flop. It also landed them a rare British top 30 single, with “Take it Back”, one of two major rock radio hits off it in North America, “Keep Talking” being the other. They then toured in a big way… and more or less disappeared. Fans assumed that was the final cut for Pink Floyd, a sense heightened with the death of Wright in 2008. So imagine the surprise when yesterday we found out there was a new Pink Floyd single – “Hey, Hey Rise Up!.”

It would take a lot to get Gilmour to dust off the old “Pink Floyd” name, something important… something like the unprovoked attack of Ukraine by Russia and the subsequent war now unfolding. Gilmour was irate for general and personal reasons. It hits close to home, he says because “my daughter-in-law Janina is Ukrainian. Her grandmother was in Kharkiv until three weeks ago. She’s very old, disabled, in a wheelchair.” Thankfully, Janina and family were able to get grandma out and to Sweden, but it highlighted the human toll of the war to Gilmour.

As well, he saw Ukranian rock singer Andriy Khlyvnyuk in a video, dressed in military garb, holding a rifle, singing a traditional Ukrainian protest song (translated as “The Red Viburnum Of The Meadow”) in front of a Kiev cathedral. Gilmour knew Khlyvnyuk, having performed at a British benefit concert together in 2015. “I thought ‘that is pretty magical’…maybe I can do something. I’ve got a pretty big platform (the name Pink Floyd) …it’s a really difficult and frustrating thing to see this extraordinary, crazy attack by a major power on an independant, peaceful democratic nation.” So he called up Nick Mason and said “listen, I want to do this thing for the Ukraine. I’d be really happy if you played on it.” Mason didn’t hesitate. So they took the audio of the Ukrainian song and created music to back it, showing both that Roger Waters didn’t have the monopoly about caring about world affairs and that Gilmour can still play some pretty dazzling guitar when he feels like it. The video went out this week and the song is available for download on major platforms, with all proceeds going to Ukrainian humanitarian causes. A little thing, but a pretty good use of his “big platform,” we think.

March 6 – The Boss’s Growing Anger Was Born In The USA

He didn’t ride a swinging metal orb naked for the video, but a year before Miley Cyrus attained pop culture immortality doing so, Bruce Springsteen delivered a Wrecking Ball of his own. That was the name of his 17th studio album, which came out this day in 2012.

The album had been long in the works, with some of the songs actually dating back to the late-’90s canon of his, and recording of the album actually being spread out over a year, mainly at his New Jersey home. As such there’s a vast array of sounds and musicians helping out, but the one constant was the feeling of disenchantment with the then present-day U.S.A.

The Boss found a new producer to work with on Wrecking Ball, Ron Aniello. Aniello had been a successful and respected producer for about a decade by this time, but had largely worked with Christian rock crossover acts like Jars of Clay and Lifehouse (actually producing their rock hit “Hanging by a Moment”). He’d won three Dove Awards – the Christian music ones – before, but this one would get him a nomination for a Grammy for his work. Bruce utilized his E Street Band for some tracks; his own wife Patti Scialfa added backing vocals, Little Steven appears and played mandolin and added backing vocals, Max Weinberg drummed on three tracks and Clarence Clemons gave his final sax performances (he actually died before the record came out). But Bruce also called in all sorts of other talented musical friends including Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello for guitars on “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression”, talented sax man Stan Harrison (who’d played with everyone from Diana Ross to Duran Duran) and drummer Steve Jordan, who currently has the enviable/unenviable job of filling Charlie Watts’ shoes behind the kit for the Rolling Stones. And for good measure, he invited Bob Clearmountain back to the studio, this time to do the final mix. Clearmountain had worked his magic similarly on several other Bruce albums, notably including Born in the U.S.A.

The result was an 11 song (expanded to 13 on a few “special edition” versions) tome released on CD, digitally or as a double-LP. One of the bonus tracks was “American Land” which featured producer Aniello playing the hurdy gurdy, one of the decidedly least common rock album instruments! Despite having quite a range of sounds, touching on Gospel, Irish jig and hip hop in various places, there was a uniformity in the solemn feel, as even the titles might suggest: “Rocky Ground,” “This Depression,” the title track and an apparent sequel to the slow song on Born in the U.S.A. , “Death to My Hometown.” Springsteen had by then, as allmusic put it, “shouldered the burden of telling the stories of the downtrodden” for his generation and that was “a class whose numbers increase” prior to the release. It was written largely in the shadow of the Wall Street meltdown of 2008-09, although a couple of songs that fit the mood preceded that financial event. “Land of Hope and Dreams” was a song he’d first recorded in 1998 but not released and the title track had been one he’d played frequently in concert for some years. He’d written that one actually as an ode to Giants Stadium in metro New York, a venue he loved to play in that had been slated for demolition.

The result was in the words of both the Hollywood Reporter and his own manager, Jon Landau, Bruce’s “angriest record.” Whether or not one felt this was a good thing directly influenced the reviews, which were largely – but far from unanimously – very good. Rolling Stone picked it as their Album of the Year, giving it 5-stars. Britain’s The Guardian rated it 4-stars and its NME, 8 out of 10. The Guardian noted that on it he “paints in broad brush strokes but its bombast rarely seems hollow”. The Hollywood Reporter called it “very rock’n’roll with unexpected textures.” Barnes and Noble stores called it “his best since Tunnel of Love, if not Born in the U.S.A” However, the Chicago Tribune also found it bombastic but lamented he was “going for stadium bombast instead of unadorned grit these stories of hard times demand” and found the result “sterile”. Later, allmusic agreed in part, giving it 3-stars, one of his lower-rated albums, and decried that “the message has been placed before the music” and in his righteousness he “has systematically removed any element of fun”.

Did fans agree with Rolling Stone or allmusic? We can only guess it was some each. “We Take Care Of Our Own” was the lead single, with a mixed message of American pride and a stinging rebuke of big business as well as the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It was picked by Barack Obama for considerable use in his re-election campaign, which The Boss had endorsed. But the song was far from a massive hit, getting only to #41 even on the rock charts, ones he’d dominated a couple of decades back. Further singles from it like “Death to My Hometown” and “Rocky Ground” fared even worse. But of course he had some level of dedicated fanbase left and the album itself did get to #1 at home, as well as in Canada, Germany, New Zealand and a few other places, making it his tenth #1 American album. It went platinum in Germany and gold discs came from Canada and Australia but it was very noticeably the first studio album of his to not hit that level in the States. Maybe if he’d ridden a wrecking ball naked in the video…

March 2 – Sting’s Sadly Timely Brooding

A good song…but don’t we wish we could laugh it off as a ridiculous bit of overwrought historical drama from an age long forgotten? Unfortunately, Sting‘s sombre “Russians” seems just as relevant now as it did back in 1986, when it peaked at #16 on the Billboard charts on this day.

It was the fourth single off his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, coming a couple of years after the breakup of the Police. And of course, it came during the height of the cold war with American president Reagan threatening the USSR and trying to speed up the fall of the Berlin Wall. History showed he was right, but times were tense to say the least when one nuclear-armed leader was shouting at another nuclear-armed leader of an equally vast empire.

Sting by then was the father of a nine year old boy, Joe, and a little girl barely a year old, Brigitte. Not surprisingly, he worried about their futures. And he’d had a friend at university “who invented a way to steal the satellite signal from Russian TV…we’d have a few beers and…watch Russian television. (Late at night) we’d only get children’s Russian television, like their Sesame Street. I was impressed with the care and attention they gave their children’s programs.” Hence the idea behind the song – Russians love their kids too, so why would they want to unleash a nuclear war? “I suddenly felt the need to state something obvious in the face of all the rhetoric,” he recalls. “”Russians love their children just as we do.”

He wrote the song, name-checking the “father of the atomic bomb” Robert Oppenheimer and Russian leader Nikita Kruschev’s 1957 speech when he told “capitalist states…history is on our side. We will bury you!” He wanted to record it in Russia with the Leningrad orchestra, but was denied access, so he had to settle for recording it in Canada with producer Pete Smith and studio musicians. The words were his, but the melody was largely based on something from Ukranian composer Sergei Prokoflev’s work. He wrote many symphonies including the globally popular Peter and the Wolf in the early-20th Century. It’s almost redundant to point out that Sting would choose a Ukranian classical musician to create his music about Russians; back then both were parts of the USSR.

He said at the time “you can’t leave it to the politicians. They’ve proven themselves inept. It’s upto you to make contact with one’s counterpart behind the so-called Iron Curtain.”

The brooding work struck a chord, especially in lands near that old Iron Curtain. It was the highest-charting song of his solo career in France, getting to #2, and ranking as the 14th biggest hit of the year in continental Europe. In Britain, it rose to #12, his best of the singles off Blue Turtles, but in North America, acclaim was a little more fleeting, with it hitting #16 in the U.S., and only #35 in Canada, perhaps because the previous three singles, most notably “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” had spurred album sales on so well.

Sting performed “Russians” at the 1986 Grammys. No word on whether he will come up with an updated 2020’s version…which we all hoped would never be something needed.

December 1 – John & His Honey’s Honey-coated Holiday Hummable

Well it’s December and we all know what that means – full steam ahead to Christmas! Mind you, around here one local pop radio station has been playing nothing but Christmas music for over three weeks. Argue amongst yourselves whether that is excessive or overly excessive! Anyway, with all the interest in the Beatles of late thanks to the Get Back documentary, what better time than to look at the first solo “Beatles” holiday record – “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon with Yoko Ono. The song, by now a seasonal staple, came out 50 years back on this day in 1971.

By that time of course, John and Yoko were married and had already been outspoken peace advocates, staging “bed-ins for peace”, meeting with politicians to state their case and putting up billboards in a dozen world cities saying pretty much what turned out to be the song title. The signs read “”War is over, if you want it! Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.” So a song seemed the obvious next step, especially after John had had good success with “Imagine.” He said the theme was the same on both : “as long as people imagine that somebody’s doing it to them, and that they have no control, then they have no control.” Or, as Songfacts sum it up “if enough people want something to happen, it will.” In the case of Lennon and Ono, the thing they wanted most back then was to see the Vietnam War end. But yelling from a soapbox wasn’t very effective, as many had found out by then. Lennon noted “now I understand what you have to do : put your political message across with a little honey.”

In this case, the “little honey” was mixing in the political message with a Christmas sentiment, and having 30 children – the Harlem Community Choir add their voices. Lennon recorded it in New York City in October of that year, with Phil Spector producing and a number of studio musicians playing behind him. They included guitarist Hugh McCracken, who’d already worked with Paul McCartney since the Beatles had broken up, Nicky Hopkins on piano and Jim Keltner on drums and “sleigh bells.” Lennon’s friend Klaus Voorman was supposed to play bass, but got stuck in Germany after missing a flight, so an unknown guitarist (Spector brought in four) picked up the four-string for it.

Happy Xmas (War is Over)” initially came out in North America as a green vinyl 7” single, with a Yoko song, “Listen! The Snow is Falling” on the b-side and an interesting “label” with a series of photos morphing their two faces together. Alas, since “business” is half of “music business”, Brits had to wait a year to buy it. Legal disputes with Northern Songs over there kept it from being released until late-’72 in the UK. The song wasn’t a huge success right away, getting to #42 in the U.S. However, it’s popularity has increased through the years, particularly after Lennon was killed in 1980. Over the years it has gotten as high as #2 in the UK and while not making the U.S. top 40, it has gotten to #3 on Billboard‘s Holiday Music chart and was voted among the top 10 Christmas songs ever by British viewers of ITV. The single is platinum in the UK, and gold in many places including Japan…making it marginally more of a hit than the other notable ex-Beatle Christmas song, Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.”

And if you aren’t quite sure just what is said at the song’s end, don’t feel bad. Most written lyrics, including ones on some Lennon compilation albums have John and Yoko whispering “Happy Christmas Yoko” and “Happy Christmas John.” But apparently the couple said otherwise, saying it was “Happy Christmas Kyoko,” and “Happy Christmas Julian,” greetings to their two kids from outside their marriage.

November 6 – Sonny Who, Public And Cher Asked

Although Sonny Bono may have “found” her when she was a teen and got her started in show biz, Cher hardly needed him to have an impact. It became obvious on this day in 1971 which half of Sonny & Cher the public liked better as Cher scored her first solo #1 hit with “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves.”

It was her first significant hit since “I Got you Babe” with Sonny about six years prior but would be far from her last. The single (and yes, it is misspelled ‘gypsys” not “gypsies” although some subsequent compilations have corrected the spelling) was the title track from her seventh solo album , which became her first gold album. The song about a 16 year-old girl who grew up in a “travelin’ show” and got pregnant was written for her by Bob Stone. While it wasn’t autobiographical, it had similarities to her life. Cher did leave home at 16 to follow the path to show biz stardom, meeting Bono soon after. And she’s said with her mixed background, she has said she was at times looked down on as a “gypsy” or “Red Indian” growing up, something reflected again in her later single “Half Breed.”

Downbeat perhaps but it set Cher on her way to being a superstar. Not only was it a #1 hit at home, it was in Canada as well and in the UK hit #4, a position she wouldn’t best until the ’90s. The single went on to sell about three million copies and has been downloaded over 200 000 times in recent years. The “Wrecking Crew” – an elite squad of L.A .studio musicians- played the music but the record never specified exactly who they were in the liner notes. However, from the date, it’s likely Glen Campbell was the guitarist, Bread’s Larry Knetchel would’ve been keyboards and Carol Kaye says she was the bassist.

Cher last hit #1 on Billboard in 1998 with the auto-tuned “Believe” but had a British top 10 hit just last year with “Stop Cryin’ Your Heart Out” and launched her own signature perfume. She’s currently on hiatus from a two-year tour due to the pandemic but is expected to be back on stage next year.

September 11 – Neil Rose And Rolled To The Occasion

There’s no need to remind any of you what today is the 20th anniversary of, nor recount in detail the horrors of 9/11. But from a musical standpoint, there are a few things worth mentioning. Shortly after the attacks, many radio stations quickly dropped a number of songs from their playlist if they seemed like they might be too sensitive or evocative of the terrorism. Those ranged from AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” to Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” to even the Bangles “Walk Like An Egyptian.” And if her some are correct, it would eventually cost us a great singer too. Donna Summer died a full 11 years later, but of lung cancer. As she wasn’t a smoker, her family blame 9/11 since Donna was apparently close to the scene and trying to help out in some way, inhaling all the toxic smoke. But the day’s events themselves weren’t a big source of musical fodder… perhaps thankfully.

There was one exception to that however. Canadian Neil Young wrote and quickly recorded a song about it, or more precisely about Flight 93 that day. Somewhat reminiscent of how he quickly wrote and recorded “Ohio” after hearing about the Ohio State massacre in 1970, he added another track to a largely-recorded album he was working on at the time, Are You Passionate?

The album in general was his “blues” record, with him working with the legendary Booker T & the MGs, most of whom appear on the song. This song however, was far from upbeat or Memphis-sounding, as was only appropriate for the material.

Flight 93 was the fourth jet hijacked by Islamic terrorists that day. It took off from Newark and was headed to San Francisco with 44 people, including the quartet of terrorists, aboard. Somewhere near Cleveland, it’s assumed that the terrorists overtook the pilot and crew and did an abrupt U-turn, heading suddenly southeast. As it turns out, passengers figured out what was going on, perhaps from celphones they had telling them the day’s horrific news, or perhaps from one of the hijackers bragging. Either way, the passengers decided to overpower the attackers. While they sadly ended up crashing the plane, they fell into an empty field east of Pittsburgh…about 200 miles shy of Washington DC, where the terrorists had planned to fly into either the Capitol or White House. While all on board died, the passengers in all likelihood saved the lives of countless more people in the nation’s capital.

Young said he felt compelled to write the song after reading about the passengers attempt. “There’s no more of a legendary heroic act than what those people did. With no promise of martyrdom, no promise of any reward…other than just knowing you did the right thing.” He called it “Let’s Roll,” a line uttered by passenger Todd Beamer as he closed a phone call he was making to an operator explaining their predicament and plan to overpower the hijackers. His wife says it was a phrase he uttered frequently when there was a job to do. Sadly, she didn’t appreciate Neil’s tribute and threatened to sue him as she wanted to trademark the saying and merchandise it.

Reprise Records didn’t issue “Let’s Roll” as a single, but some radio stations, notably KLOS in L.A. played it as such. Reaction to it was mixed. Some felt it a bit inappropriate to begin with, others felt the lyrics like “We’re going after Satan on the wings of a dove” were a bit heavy-handed. Others loved the sentiment and anger. Pitchfork perhaps spoke for many saying that Neil still remains “musically relevant” but this song overshadowed the rest of the album needlessly. They called it the “Big Journalistic Angle of the album” but add while “staunchly against tragedy tribute songs” this one eventually “cut through my considerable cynicism as Neil attacks a single chord on his guitar for nearly a minute before unleashing a sad/angry solo that says volumes.”

Perhaps when all was said and done, it’s all appropriate. Music matters, but not more than life itself, so ultimately a day that we’ll never forget was marked by a slightly forgettable, if honorable, song.

July 24 – Revere Stayed Home While Raiders Rode Up Charts

A song that might seem to fit the current times and prevailing attitudes topped the chart 50 years ago – “Indian Reservation” by the Raiders. It became their only #1 hit in the U.S. on this day in 1971. 

The Raiders, who had until recently been known as Paul Revere and the Raiders were something of an early garage rock band, started in Boise about a decade earlier but soon relocated to Portland. They were known as much for their faux-Revolutionary War costumes as their raw sound on their ten top 20 hits in the ’60s like “Kicks.” However, things were pointing downwards for them by 1971. It’d been a couple of years since anything they did caught the public’s ear and Paul Revere, the band’s organ player wasn’t with them anymore. In fact, only the band’s lead singer, Mark Lindsay was on this one (which he produced himself), using largely talented Wrecking Crew musicians like drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Carol Kaye, as well as Brill Building keyboard wiz Artie Butler, to play. Hence just “The Raiders” on the label, no Paul Revere.

Indian Reservation” also has the ponderously long sub-title “The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian.” The Cherokees were a Native people who lived mainly in what is now Georgia but had been relocated to a large “reservation” in Oklahoma in the late-18th Century. With the strident chorus of “Cherokee People, Cherokee Tribe, so proud to live, so proud to die” and the final refrain foretelling the Cherokee Nation’s return, it seems like a song with a theme that would fit in well with today’s politics. It was however, written in the 1950s, and at the time perhaps a little less appropriate to today’s ears. The song was written by a Nashville songwriter, John Loudermilk, who also wrote Cher’s “Half Breed.” The first recording, a ’59 attempt by Marvin Rainwater lacked the “Cherokee people” chorus but did have a lot of “hiya hiya Ho!” chants similar to what most Indians sounded like on the Westerns of the day. Don Fardon had a minor hit with it here in 1968 (it actually got to #3 in the UK, where the Raiders version wasn’t big) with a few slightly different lyrics, but it was the Raiders who made it their own – and a song that lives on decades later. Which, Songfacts point out, is a bit ironic. It was “written by a White country songwriter, and recorded by a band named after White European patriots whose colonization of the U.S. took the land from the Cherokees.”

Ironic or not, the song was hummable and made a few people think in all likelihood, spending a week on top of Billboard‘s chart, sandwiched between #1s from Carole King and her close friend James Taylor. It ended up as the year’s sixth biggest hit and went double-platinum, briefly being the biggest hit ever for Columbia Records. However it would also be the Raiders’ last hurrah. By 1975 they were dropped by the label and though they’ve had a few reunions since, the chances of (the late) Paul Revere and The Raiders returning seem slimmer than the “Cherokee Nation’s.”

May 27 – Cockburn Rails Away Against Injustice 50 Years On

Happy 76th birthday to an ’80s throwback to the ’60s – Bruce Cockburn.

The Canadian singer has been compared to the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, but perhaps deserves some comparisons to another Canadian – Leonard Cohen, as a singer acutely aware of the power of words, greatly respected but without overwhelming commercial success. Although his music is very much rooted in folk, he’s dabbled in straight-ahead rock, reggae and even jazz. Yet he has the soul of a punk rocker, railing against any number of wrongs and wrong-doers including those who harm the environment, mega-corporations and governments that keep native populations segregated. Given that, perhaps its surprising he says he’s more influenced by poets than anything else – for instance Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Neruda, and Kenji Miyazawa. “He was a big influence on me in the late-’70s and ’80s”, he said recently about the Japanese poet from the early-20th Century. “He wrote from a Buddhist perspective and he had a sensibility of nature that was also in a lot of my songs.”

Bruce’s put out 34 studio albums since 1970, and had 20 go gold or better at home, as well as eight top 40 singles including “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (which was covered later by Barenaked Ladies), the 1989 top 10 hit “If A Tree Falls” and the controversial “If I Had A Rocket Launcher.” That song, inspired after he visited a refugee camp in Mexico and was sickened by what he considered authoritarian Central American governments’ war on their own people was banned by many stations (largely due to the line “if I had a rocket launcher- some son of a bitch would die!”) but hit #24 on Toronto’s top AM station. He says now he’s rather tired of the song and talking about it. “In the aftermath of 9-11, it just didn’t feel right to sing a song that suggested that (violence) as a response to violence.” Stateside, he’s mostly known for his 1980 easy-listening hit “Wondering where the Lions are” which got to #21 and had him on Saturday Night Live (with Bob Newhart hosting that week!).

The level of respect for him in Canada perhaps exceeds the level of commercial success : to date he’s been awarded six honorary doctorates there and he won (ironically enough considering the other music piece we’re running today) a Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal for “significant contributions and achievements to their fellow countrymen and community.” He put out his most recent record, Crowing Ignites, an all-instrumental one, late in 2019.

May 21 – Gaye’s Masterpiece Hits 50…To His Boss’ Chagrin

Many times here we’ve looked at incidents where record companies over-ruled artists in terms of selection of singles or material to be recorded, and usually they ended up being right. Today we look at the case of an opposite to that – one where an artist’s stubborn refusal to listen to his influential boss and record company paid big dividends for all concerned. One of R&B’s best turns 50 – Marvin Gaye‘s 11th studio album, What’s Going On, came out this day in 1971.

It was about a decade after Marvin had issued his first record and through the decade in between, he’d become one of Motown’s most respected, and most bankable artists, scoring 11 American top 10 hits, several of them with his friend and musical partner, Tammi Terrell. However, all was not well with Marvin – nor the country – by the new decade. Terrell had terminal cancer, Gaye’s marriage was breaking up. And that marriage was to Anna Gordy, Motown’s owner Berry Gordy’s sister. He had a cocaine habit and was being hounded by the IRS. Meanwhile, around the land, youth were being shipped off in record numbers to Vietnam and protests were breaking out almost weekly. Gaye toyed with the idea of becoming a pro football player briefly, playing a few games with a low-level team in hopes of going to the NFL. That failed, but three members of the Detroit Lions club actually are among the ten backing vocalists Gaye utilized for this album. This album which was quite different than what he’d done before.

“With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” he apparently asked Gordy. “I felt like a puppet – Berry’s puppet, Anna’s puppet. I had a mind of my own and I wasn’t using it.” He set out to change that with this one. Which his boss didn’t like, to say the least. Berry was said to have called Gaye’s idea for a denser and more socially-meaningful album was “ridiculous”, calling the title track “the worst song” he’d ever heard. Gaye was undeterred.

He recorded the album over a full year, using both Motown’s own Hitsville USA studio in Detroit and an L.A. one. It was the first time he’d produced his own record, and picked the help, which included over 20 session musicians plus the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Gaye himself played piano, and on the title track, mellotron. The nine songs had somewhat optimistic sheens – “Save the Children”, “God Is Love”, etc. – but shone a light on the troubles of the land. As Dave Hutcheon of Mojo pointed out, “if listeners thought with all this talk about love and God and ecology meant there was some kind of redemption due…they were in for a hard, quick lesson in reality” with “Inner City Blues.” Then there was “Flyin’ High”,a song about heroin addiction; “Mercy Mercy Me” referenced the ecology, a word Berry Gordy said he didn’t even understand. “What’s Going On” was originated by Obie Benson of the Four Tops, who was disgusted with acts of police brutality he’d seen on the road and the growing casualty list among American kids in the Vietnam war. He offered the song to his band, but they turned it down, thinking it too controversial. He played it for Marvin, who “added some things that were more ghetto” and took to it. The Motown boss didn’t want to release the record, and especially not that title track (which Marvin wanted as the first single), but surprisingly the singer won the power struggle, threatening to quit recording if the label didn’t put out his record. It came out, and blew the doors off his previous work in terms of both commercial success and critical praise.

The LP became his first to go gold at home and platinum in the UK (it’s still only certified gold in the U.S., but has verifiably sold over a million copies meaning it could qualify for platinum, if not more) and it reached #6 on the album charts… a tidy 183 places higher than his previous one! The title track got to #2 in the States, and the follow-ups “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues” also hit the top 10 and topped R&B charts. The former also made the Canadian top 10, something Gaye had done less frequently than at home.

Critics liked the record then. They love it now. At the time, Rolling Stone gave it 4-stars, The Observer 5-stars and the Village Voice graded it “B” – typical of the range of reactions in ’71. Rolling Stone marveled “there are very few performers who could carry off a project like this. I’ve always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn’t expect him to be one of them.” New York’s Village Voice liked “three highly original singles” but thought the remainder “marred by the lowest kind of movie background dreck” underneath the lyrics.

Time has treated the record well though. Allmusic gives it a perfect 5-star rating, declaring it “not only Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece” but the “best full-length (album) to issue from Motown.” By the end of the ’90s, VH1 ranked it as the fourth greatest album ever, while over in the UK, The Guardian‘s readers voted it 17th best but the paper’s critics tabbed it as the greatest. Something Rolling Stone would echo recently. A new list from that publication jumped it to the top spot of greatest albums ever, up from #6 the previous decade. They suggest “through a haze of marijuana smoke, Gaye made one intuitively brilliant decision after another.” The most brilliant of which was probably standing up to Berry Gordy.

Unfortunately, 50 years on, one could look around and still wonder “what’s going on?”…and wonder more, where’s the next great musical statement about the times coming from?