September 23 – Billy’s Experiment In Nylon

The two of them might not love it, but many of us seem to lump today’s birthday boy, Bruce Springsteen (wishing him a happy 73 today!)  and Billy Joel together in the same sort of musical box. Here we like both so it doesn’t seem to be much of an insult to me, but I digress. Anyway, both singer/songwriters came to prominence in the mid-’70s, emerged from the greater New York area and were quintessential blue collar musical heroes, singing about the ordinary people they knew and respected. And by 1982 we thought we had them both pegged when they both took a hard left turn and came out with surprisingly downbeat and different-sounding records. On this day, Joel released his eighth studio album, The Nylon Curtain. A week later, Springsteen gave us his acoustic Nebraska.

Anyway, Joel’s The Nylon Curtain was something of a polarizing album. After delivering his most rock & roll-oriented, fun-loving Glass Houses in 1980, this one was a deeper but more challenging release. The short story – critics loved it, fans more or less panned it. But there’s more to it than that.

Joel was looking around America and wasn’t optimistic about what he was seeing. It was, after all, an era of inflation, unemployment, a growing chasm between the Wall Street rich and the ordinary workers in the companies they owned, fear about the Cold War… “It was during the Reagan years and… all of a sudden, you weren’t going to be able to inherit the (lifestyle) your old man had,” Joel remembers. Curiously, he was also listening to mid-era Beatles a lot at the time. Thus The Nylon Curtain came to be, an album Rolling Stone considered his most ambitious.

The album is a loosely thematic look at the U.S. in decline through the eyes of a blue collar Baby Boomer. Although the first single was the jarring “Pressure” and it contained a few missteps, like the “venomous” (in the words of Rolling Stone again) “Laura” about a guy who hates his girlfriend but realizes “living alone isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be” either, and perhaps the experimental “Scandinavian Skies” which he says was directly influenced by the sound of Beatles singles like “I Am the Walrus”, it contains some very good material and two of his best – and most under-rated – tunes: “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon”.

The former was actually inspired by a trip he paid tt Bethlehem, PA but that name didn’t fit the song structure as well. Regardless, it described any number of “Rust Belt” cities and the unfortunate workers caught in the changing times and closing factories. Rolling Stone applauded the “tune, language and singing are all brazenly direct” and felt it “could be a scene from The Deer Hunter set to music.” The mayor of Allentown, PA was impressed enough to give Joel the keys to the city next time he played there.

Goodnight Saigon” is a haunting, 7-minute epic complete with helicopter and cricket sounds (the Beatles experimentation rubbing off) that Rolling Stone called “the ultimate pop music epitaph to the Vietnam war”… “a stunner”. The piece about the band of brothers trained on Parris Island shipped out to the horrors of the Asian war with only their Doors tapes and Playboy who’d “All go down together” indeed is one of the most compelling musical takes on the reality of war and one of Billy’s best achievements.

People magazine approved, saying “Joel jackknifes (sic) into adulthood (with) a striking cycle of nine songs about the current plight of boomed babies” which are “vintage Joel with clever hooks.”

For all that, the public wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic. While by no means a flop, it was his least-successful release since 1976, selling less than even 1981’s compilation of live tunes and outtakes, Songs in the Attic. At home in the U.S. it charted to #7 and went double platinum; it topped out at #12 in Canada and only #27 across the sea in the UK. Somehow though, it did hit #1 in the Netherlands. The singles “Pressure” and “Allentown” both it the top 20 in the States, his 10th and 11th such hits, and “Allentown” although it never got higher than #17 on the weekly charts, had such enduring popularity that it was among the 50 biggest records of the year. “Goodnight Saigon” was released as a third single, but being 7 minutes, lacking a normal kind of verse/chorus structure and being about the horrors of war, was a tough sell in a time of happy synthesizers, safety dances and Duran Duran playing with bikini-clad models on yachts.

For it all, Joel says the album is “the recording I’m most proud of.” And he rebounded very nicely the next year with his more upbeat An Innocent Man which catapulted him back to the top. (Springsteen’s fate with his Nebraska similar and he too bounced back with the multi-million selling Born in the USA less than two years down the road.)

September 11 – Daniels Defiant Anthem For The Day

There’s no real need to remind people, Americans especially, what this day is the anniversary of. One of the very few slivers of a silver lining that might have come from 9/11 though was that for a little time it certainly seemed to unite Americans, regardless of color or political affiliation. Curiously, a song all about that was in its 11th and final week on the top 40 this day 21 years earlier, in 1980. With its lyrical theme, perhaps then there’s little surprise that “In America” by the Charlie Daniels Band had a renewed popularity after the 2001 attacks. Daniels even put out a new video for the song at the time. The defiant, in-yer-face approach and lines like “we’ll all stick together, and you can take that to the bank – that’s the cowboys and the hippies, the rebels and the Yanks” suddenly seemed relevant. Necessary even.

Daniels was by then a big-time country star, albeit one who flew a ways from the mainstream of country, building his music around his bluegrass fiddle skills and Southern redneck themes. He’d had a surprise, major crossover into mainstream pop/rock territory a couple of years earlier with his rollicking “Devil Went Down To Georgia.” “In America”, from his 11th album, Full Moon, likewise crossed over to conventional hit radio, eventually reaching #8 and pushing the album to platinum status.

That might not have been entirely unpredictable. Even though the six-man band came across as backwoods hicks, they had real musical talent…and backing. The album was produced by John Boylan. Boylan was not only a vice president of Epic Records, he’d worked with Linda Ronstadt and Little River Band before and co-produced Boston’s multi-million selling debut. So he knew a thing or two about making a record the masses to hear!

Daniels said he wrote the song as a sort of antidote to the country’s malaise of the time. Iran had American hostages, people were still shaken by Watergate, and unemployment and inflation were both high. Morale was low. Daniels felt “the strength of America isn’t in Washington DC, it’s in our people. It’s in our farms, in the factories, it’s the people out here that make the country work.” He picked the Pittsburgh Steelers fans as a lyrical example in the song because , even though he was from North Carolina, he figured Pittsburgh people were “the salt of the Earth. The finest, just the greatest people on Earth.” He particularly enjoyed going to watch the Steelers play in their hometown.

Daniels passed away at 83 in 2020. And whether we like his redneck stance or not, the idea “you never did think that we’d ever get together again, but we damn sure could” seems all the more relevant than ever in 2022. We can only hope it won’t take another 9/11 to get people to realize it.

August 29 – The Statement Song That Made Starr A Star

Today we look at another angry anthem inspired by the Vietnam War, from 52 years ago. “War” by Edwin Starr hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1970.

The song succinctly summed up the sentiments of many then, and to this day with it’s question asked and answered, “War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” The song was put out by Motown, but had a decidedly un-Motown-like vibe to it. That thanks to the writing duo of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, who also wrote “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” As British journalist David Hutter noted, Whitfield was probably the one person in the Motown organization who wanted to change their direction (away from happy, brief pop love songs) and had both the clout and nerve to take on Berry Gordy over it.

The Temptations originally recorded the song on their Psychedelic Shack album. But not only did it not really have the edge and vitriol it really deserved, the band itself weren’t crazy about it and no one wanted to release it as a single, fearing the effect it would have on the band’s career, since they had been to that point fairly typical Motown artists building a nice career on harmonic love songs. So he recruited Starr for the job of re-recording it.

Edwin Starr was a relatively low-profile artist on their roster who’d begun his career singing doo-wop in Tennessee in the ’50s and had a minor hit or two of his own in the ’60s, as well as writing the song “Oh So Happy” for the Shades of Blue. He didn’t have a big reputation to risk, and as Robert Christgau notes, “Starr is more naturally strident than any of the Temptations.” Turns out that’s just what was called for. Whitfield brought in session rock artists to do the music and The Undisputed Truth (“Smiling Faces Sometimes”) to add background vocals and the song packed a wallop.

Typical of the era’s contrasts, it knocked Bread’s “Make it with You” off the top of the charts, and spent three weeks at #1, eventually being the fifth-biggest single of the year in the States. It also went to #1 to the north in Canada, and #3 in the UK. The song would live on as a popular rally cry for the peace movement and be resurrected later in the Cold War era. Brits Frankie Goes to Hollywood recorded a version of it for the b-side to their own anti-war hit “Two Tribes” and Bruce Springsteen began playing a version of it on his Born in the USA tour. A 1985 performance of it in L.A. was recorded and put on his multi-disc Live 1975/85; becoming a top 10 hit as a single.

August 21 – Oil’s Delivered Crash Course In Aussie Sociology…And Rock

Besting the Clash at what they do is a tall order. But on a day that was Joe Strummer’s birthday, Midnight Oil might have done that. On this day in 1987. On that day they released their international breakthrough album, Diesel and Dust.

The political rockers from Australia had been around for over a decade and were well-loved at home by then. Their previous album, Red Sails in the Sunset was a #1 there and went multi-platinum. However, except for some residual popularity across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, they were relatively unknown elsewhere. That would all change with Diesel and Dust, their sixth album and first one to be pushed heavily overseas by CBS Records.

The impetus for the record was largely set in motion in 1986, when the Oils toured Australia with a couple of Aboriginal bands, playing a number of small towns in the Outback besides the normal cities like Sydney and Melbourne. It was called the “Blackfella/Whitefella tour.” They were outraged at the poor conditions they saw in the Outback, particularly the indigenous/Aboroginal communities where health problems were common and housing conditions terrible compared to the wealthier coastal communities. The result was a set of songs about the Australian Outback and the plight of the Aborigines.

Which could have been overbearing and monotonously lecturous. But in the hands of Peter Garrett and his bandmates, it ended up being a lively, driving, almost hypnotic manifesto – no wonder a couple of years later when they played a protest show outside of Exxon headquarters they had signs saying “Midnight Oil makes you dance/Exxon Oil makes us sick!”.

The single “Beds are Burning” was flat out one of the best rock songs of the decade, let alone the most listenable of the protest ones. The follow-up “Dead Heart”, a view of their land being colonized through Aboriginal eyes, built to a boil and other tracks like “Dreamworld” and “Bullroarer” kept the momentum through and through. The song “Arctic World” oddly enough, was the only track not specifically about Australia; it was a protest of the rampant oil drilling in the arctic… a subject they’d revisit after the Exxon Valdez shipwreck.

Curiously, the protests about the record came from not the establishment, nor people who wanted to dance without being subject to a history lesson, but from some of the far-left political organizations. They felt that Garrett, a white, was being patronizing singing about Aborigines, and that the band was disrespectful for using a bullroarer (a traditional ceremonial instrument with the natives of the country) in the song of that name. Whatever.

The public didn’t care too much about that and loved it like they had the more whimsical act from Down Under, Men at Work, a few years prior. It soon hit #1 in their homeland and New Zealand, and while it took a while, became a massive success in the West”. It spent eight weeks at #1 in Canada and although it only got to #21 in the U.S., it still earned them a platinum record there. In Australia, it was 7X that.

Critics too adored Diesel and Dust. At the time, Rolling Stone would grade it 4-stars, calling it “the last word in rock and roll road songs. No candy-ass laments about dingy hotel rooms, lousy room service” just a record which “shakes and roars and throbs like the giant double-trailer trucks that chew up the asphalt across…the Australian desert heart.” It would later call it the best album of 1988. Years later, Pop Matters would grade it 9/10 calling it “punk-informed fire (with) a little R.E.M. jingle” and applaud their picking up the torch of guitar-driven socially conscious rock that U2 veered away from around then. Or, as allmusic would say, it sold well and was “an artistic success and a triumph for leftist politics. Even The Clash never managed that … this well!”

For those keeping track, Midnight Oil is rolling again after a long break while singer Peter Garrett successfully ventured into federal politics in his country.

July 3 – Doors Opened A Little More Expansively

The problem with being really good is people expect you to get still better! Such was the dilemma for The Doors who released their third album on this day in 1968, Waiting for the Sun. The record was their only #1 album at home and made #3 on Canadian charts (as well as hitting the UK top 20 for the first time) and went on to sell nine million copies. However, many felt it a let-down despite having the massive single “Hello, I Love You” on it. that song was their second chart-topper in both the U.S. and Canada. It was joined on the 45 racks by the challenging, anti-war anthem “The Unknown Soldier“, a song which perfectionist producer Paul Rothschild required 130 takes of to get right!

The Doors were nothing if not workaholics back then; it was their third album in just 18 months and they’d been touring fairly constantly through the time as well. And not only did they put together this album, Jim had another original concept for Side two – a 17” rambling piece called “Celebration of the Lizard”. They couldn’t get it quite right in the studio, so they dropped that and substituted five other songs but the Lizard would return, in a 1970 live album. Curiously the actual song “Waiting for the Sun” was not on the record; it came a couple of years later on Morrison Hotel. A massive hit single; a searing anti-War anthem and as Rolling Stone put it, “the group is, as always, tight.” Still, no one seemed all that happy with the release. Although Britain’s NME liked it, calling ”The Unknown Soldier” a standout and saying “all (songs) on side two are gems”, North American reviews weren’t as wildly enthusiastic . Rolling Stone at the time said while “it isn’t really terrible, it isn’t particularly exciting either” and suggested “Morrison could use some levity occasionally.” Years later, allmusic noted how high expectations were for it after their first two albums and think the “songwriting (was) no as impressive as it had been” although it was still “quite enjoyable” as an entity. They’d end up rebounding with their next trio of albums which led us to Jim Morrison’s death, also on this day, in 1971.

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.