November 26 – Show May Not Have Been ‘Cream’ Of The Crop

It was a show to see…although the home version was hardly cream of the crop. Cream played their final regular concert this night in 1968 at Royal Albert Hall in London. It was recorded for British TV viewers and later released for home viewing as the video Farewell Concert.

Cream were, as you likely know, a short-lived but highly influential trio sometimes considered rock’s first “supergroup.” when they formed in early ’66, Eric Clapton was already well-known and respected for his guitar work in the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce came from the Graham Bond Organisation, an early sort of prog/blues rock band which was well-regarded in Britain but lacked any significant commercial success. They quickly put out three albums, the third being the double-album Wheels of Fire, which came out in the summer of ’68. Along the way they’d had some international success with both the albums and singles like “White Room” and “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Wheels of Fire made the British top 10, as did the preceding pair of albums, and made it to the top on North American charts. Cream was touring regularly and a hot act, on the way up.

Nonetheless, they were getting tired of the road, and even more tired of each other… Baker and Bruce especially. Bruce was said to be enthralled by the idea of maximum volume and tried to turn his amps up loud enough as to drown out the drummer. “That last year with Cream was just agony,” Baker would later say. “I’ve still got a hearing problem because of the sheer volume…it just went into the realm of stupidity.” Clapton suggested that many of the shows on their last American tour, in the fall, “mainly consisted of (us) showing off.”

So after winding up the American tour in early-November, they decided to say a proper farewell to their home fans at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London on Nov. 25 and 26. The BBC recorded it, although apparently they only recorded short bits of the first one but the entire second show. Which unfortunately, according to Baker “wasn’t a good gig…Cream was better than that.”

Better or not, the Farewell Concert was what the Brits got to see a few weeks after, in January ’69, on the BBC. The TV show was produced by future record company magnate Robert Stigwood…although some would say not very well. The program ran 51 minutes, with six songs – “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Politician”, “White Room”, “Spoonful”, “Toad” and “I’m so Glad.” That was what was also released on VHS in 1977 but the DVD, in 2005, ran about an extra half hour with three added songs and John Peel bringing them on stage.

Critics had a lot to work with. The sound quality was not considered very good, and at times seemed out of sync with the video. Because the BBC used a variety of cameras, some film and some video, the actual visual quality was uneven, and worse, some shoddy editing involved mixing clips from both shows in one song, resulting in Eric Clapton mysteriously playing a different guitar than he was seconds earlier and Ginger Baker wearing different clothes.

For all that, it was a good souvenir of the band’s last stand. They had a chance to get it right 25 years later, when they appeared at their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, and in 2005 when they played a brief reunion of four shows at the Royal Albert Hall again.

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November 13 – Those Two Together Again? What Is It, Groundhog Day?

Ten years after splitting up in public, twelve years after doing so in private, Sonny and Cher got back together to perform , on David Letterman’s show. The late night TV appearance this night in 1987 would be their final performance together . The pair had been among North America’s most popular performers in the ’70s, after kicking off a promising musical career in the ’60s. They had eight top 20 hits from 1965 to ’72, including their iconic #1 hit “I Got You Babe”, which is what they did on Letterman.

Their popularity both musically and on stage got them their own TV variety show in 1971, which ran under a couple of titles until 1977. By that time, the pair had divorced and Cher had married Gregg Allman; in between the show and the final performance she would divorce Allman and Sonny would also remarry then divorce. Their careers were going in quite different directions by 1987. Sonny had by and large stepped away from entertainment after their ’70s variety show (although he did have a few bit parts in TV shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and Love Boat) and was gearing up for a successful run at politics. By the next spring, he’d be mayor of Palm Springs, then go onto to work in federal politics before dying in a skiing accident in the ’90s. After a successful run as a solo musician in the ’70s, Cher had largely reinvented herself as an actress in the ’80s, with well-received roles in movies like Silkwood. At the time of the Letterman appearance, she was about to have her Academy Award-wining movie, Moonstruck, open and her major eponymous comeback album, with the song “I Found Someone” hitting the chart. A tragic skiing accident killed Bono in 1998, thereby ending any hope of another reunion for the Hollywood odd couple. At least it seemed like they were enjoying this appearance as much as the fans.

November 9 – Night Brought Changes To Bowie’s Career

Well, another day, another story of a “last chance” for fans that no one expected to be a last chance. David Bowie made his final public performance this night in 2006 in New York City. It was an elegant but a bit underwhelming appearance given its eventual gravity. He did three songs that evening at a fundraiser at the Hammerstein Ballroom.

It was the “Black Ball”, set up by songstress Alicia Keys, an annual event to raise money for Keep A Child Alive. That is a charity she co-founded designed to help out people suffering from AIDS and their families in the Third World. Bowie shared the spotlights with Keys herself as well as Damian Marley (one of Bob’s sons) and comedienne Wanda Sykes. He came onstage looking suitably dapper for the “black tie” event, in tuxedo jacket and yep, black tie, and did three songs – a cover of Johnny Mathis’ “Wild is the Wind”, “Fantastic Voyage”, an obscure song of his from 1979’s Lodger, and as a finale, “Changes.” Keys joined him onstage for that number, which was well-received. However, the night wasn’t really about David…but if his fans knew they’d not see him perform again, there might have been a bit of a feeding frenzy in order to get tickets, no matter what the price!

It wasn’t a busy year for Bowie, so the lack of a big tour was no surprise at all. In fact, just after getting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys early on in ’06, he announced “I’m taking a year off. No touring, no album.” Seemed entirely reasonable. Bowie was 59 at that time and he and his wife Iman were scaling back their careers a little to spend more time together and with their young daughter Lexi. That aside, he did make an appearance with another David, Gilmour, at one of the Pink Floyd man’s London concerts in May.

However, the year turned into years, with his next album not arriving until 2013, for which he did no concerts and limited publicity. After that it was the well-reviewed Black Star, which sadly arrived only two days before his untimely death in 2016, so to state the glaringly obvious, there were no shows to promote that.

So if you were among the 2000 or so people at the Hammerstein 16 years ago, you were helping out a good cause. But also witnessing history.

October 29 – Floyd Record, 2: For 112 Nights, Division Bell United Fans

If you were a Pink Floyd fan in the ’90s, there was only one place to be on this day in 1994 – London. More precisely, Earl’s Court in the British capital, as that’s where the Floyd would be playing their last-ever “regular” concert.

Of course, as is the case in many such events, those in attendance had little idea at the time it would be the last time to see David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Richard Wright together in a full, conventional concert, with or without Roger Waters. All they knew was it was the finale on the wildly-successful “Division Bell” tour, some 27 years after they’d embarked on their very first tour. In the years between, Pink Floyd had become the most popular “prog rock” band in the world and put out a run of hit albums including two of the biggest-sellers ever – Dark Side of The Moon and The Wall. And their concerts had become famous for the incredible light shows, special effects and props (flying pig anyone?) involved.

The “Division Bell” tour was going to be no different, other than perhaps a bit more over-the-top still. It had been seven years since their previous new record and over five since their last tour, so David Gilmour wanted to make it a memorable one. To whit, they had a 180-foot wide stage with a huge arch, designed to look like the Hollywood Bowl to play on, the most elaborate light show yet (including expensive copper lasers only used in scientific experiments and high-tech industries before) and an exploding model plane flying over. In all, it took some 53 trucks to transport, with over 150 crew. No wonder they played two or more nights in many locales!

They changed up their set lists a little from night to night, and quite noticeably between the North American part which began it and the European leg that concluded. But in general, they played two sets with about ten songs in each and came back for a two or three song encore, in all covering their whole career but concentrating on Dark Side of the Moon, which in most of the European shows they played in its entirety during the second set. Which made the eight extra musicians they brought along to back them all the more necessary. They generally opened up with the song that opened up their lengthy career – “Astronomy Domine”, a Syd Barrett song from their first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, before heading into recent territory with “Learning to Fly.” The encore included in various shows “Wish You Were Here,” “Hey You” and ended with “Run Like Hell”. Even though The Wall had been almost entirely Roger Waters pet project and he’d famously left the band under less-than-cordial terms, they didn’t shy away from playing a good portion of it for the ecstatic fans.

And there were lots of those. The tour kicked off in Miami on March 30, and ran 112 shows through 21 countries, wrapping up with an unprecedented 14 concerts at Earl’s Court, a 21 000 seat venue considered England’s premier indoor events center. Most concerts along the way were sold out; on this side of the ocean, stops in L.A., San Francisco, Boston, Montreal, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Toronto and Detroit (or their suburbs) all saw over 100 000 people attend over two or three nights; in New York City it was over 220 000 over four nights in two different stadiums. In the European shows, Volkswagen gave away a limited-edition Golf, with high-end stereo and a particularly fuel-efficient engine, every night. Little wonder then that by the time it was over, it had raked in over $250 million, even though tickets weren’t outrageously expensive for the era. In New York, Yankee Stadium tickets averaged about $32 each. At the time, it was the most lucrative concert tour ever, although another aging British band, the Rolling Stones, would top it just a year later.

Of course, no one then knew that it would end up being the end of Pink Floyd’s illustrious concert-giving career. But by 2001, Gilmour said “you never know what the future (holds), but I certainly don’t see myself going out for a big Floyd tour again.” And he hasn’t; and with Richard Wright’s death in 2008, it would seem all the less likely to occur now. That isn’t to say it was the very last time they appeared and performed together mind you. They played at their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1997 (with Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins filling in for Waters), two songs at their manager, Steve O’Rourke’s funeral in 2003 and a couple of songs at a Syd Barrett tribute in 2007. Waters performed at the same concert, but avoided his old band. And more notably, they did get together for the 2005 Live 8 concert, in which Roger Waters joined them – even appearing amicable – for a five song set.

Those who weren’t at Earl’s Court, or who were and want to relive it can have a chance. They put out a live CD and DVD, Pulse, taken from shows in London and Rome from the tour.

July 18 – Billy Passed Piano To Paul For Last Play At Shea

It was the end of an era in the Big Apple 14 years back. One which appropriately enough looked back at the start of the very same era. For this night in 2008 New York City hosted the “Last Play At Shea”. It was the final concert held at the city’s Shea Stadium, and who could be more appropriate to play a major show there than Billy Joel? Except, just possibly The Beatles. The night was a huge Billy Joel show, but Beatles fans weren’t to be disappointed either!

Shea Stadium was a sports venue in Queens. It dated back to the early-’60s, a time when giant, concrete multi-use stadiums were popping up in all kinds of North American cities. Shea came about out of the city’s embarrassment. New York had been home to three Major League Baseball teams about a decade earlier, but two – the Giants and Dodgers – left for California in the ’50s. This dented the local civic pride. Baseball agreed to give the city a new team…if a new stadium was built for them. The city agreed, and got the Mets, and Shea Stadium as a result.

Ground was broken on the site in early 1961, and the stadium was supposed to open in time for the ’63 Mets to play. The then mayor said a year before that “only a series of blizzards or some other unforeseen problems” could possibly derail the plans. The winter of ’62-63 saw a string of blizzards, and two major stadium contractors going broke. It opened in ’64 instead.

The stadium was big. It had a capacity of about 55 000 for baseball, and could be stretched to over 60 000 for football. While designed for the Mets baseball, designers were savvy enough to make it be able to accommodate football, and indeed the Jets NFL club did call it home for nearly 20 years. Although it had its fans, many considered it a little impersonal and cold, the outfield seats were too high and the few private boxes offered only so-so views.

Obviously, at some point entertainment promoters would come to realize that a 55 000 seat facility in the middle of a huge city could be of use for things besides baseball. Shea Stadium famously found that out in summer of 1965, when the Beatles played the first concert there in front of tens of thousands of screaming young fans. The sound was legendarily bad due to the stadium acoustics and sound system not designed for rock concerts, but it was still a landmark event, as was their return a year later on their final tour.

After that, the stadium saw a number of big concerts. In August 1970 it hosted the “Concert for Peace” with artists including Janis Joplin, CCR, hometown boy Paul Simon and Miles Davis. A year later Grand Funk, at the height of their drawing power set a remarkable record by selling out the stadium even faster than the Beatles had. The Police played in front of over 50 000 in ’83, with Sting comparing it to playing “on top of Everest” and quipping “we’d like to thank the Beatles for lending us their stadium!”. The Rolling Stones played an impressive six nights there on their ’89 Steel Wheels Tour, and Bruce Springsteen ended his lengthy 2003 tour there, bringing along Bob Dylan as a special guest. And in an entirely different type of “concert”, Pope John Paul II held a huge mass and service there in ’79.

But all good things are said to come to an end, and in the case of Shea, it was becoming increasingly unpopular in the 2000s. The Mets saw a number of other teams in cities like Baltimore and Cleveland building newer, slightly smaller but more comfortable stadiums with great facilities…and higher ticket prices. They wanted somewhere new, and the city was ready to see Shea go away. So plans were made for Citi Field, more or less right across the road from Shea, and a demolition firm was brokered.

But before the wrecking ball started swinging, it needed a big send off. Enter Billy Joel.

He booked July 16th and 18th for the last two concerts at Shea.

The 16th seemingly was a good concert, but as one might expect, the “fireworks” were kept for the final show. In front of a sell-out of 55 000, Billy played a great set which would have been well received just of the normal Joel fare…opening with “Angry Young Man” and rolling through 18 or 20 of his greats from the past three decades including “My Life”, “Everybody Loves You Now”, “Allentown,” “Keeping the Faith”, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “Only the Good Die Young.” But a landmark date needs some landmark special events, and many artists had fond memories of Shea. So Billy brought in friends. The great and seemingly timeless Tony Bennett joined him on stage to sing Joel’s “New York State of Mind”. Garth Brooks happened by and did “Shameless”. John Mayer picked up the guitar to accompany the “Piano Man” on “This is the Time.” Steven Tyler of Aerosmith came by to do “Walk this Way”, a song resurrected in the ’80s when redone with New Yorkers Run-DMC. Small town John Mellencamp visited the huge city to do “Pink Houses”, and Roger Daltrey of The Who did “My Generation.” Whew. That would have been quite a show. But that wasn’t all.

Pat Tyson is a writer who happened to see The Beatles play Shea when she was a youth in the ’60s. She was in the “nosebleeds” for the Last Play At Shea.

She wrote that Billy seemingly had finished and left the stage, but came back. Encore perhaps? “Billy walks back,” she told Daytripper, “and he says ‘Ladies and Gentlemen … Sir Paul McCartney!’ and everyone went wild! He and Billy played ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and brought the house down. McCartney got a rousing ovation, then left the stage.” But that wasn’t all. He’d later return and Paul “spoke to the crowd and said Shea Stadium had special meaning to him and he was glad to be there.’ With that he launched into ‘Let It Be’ and of course the crowd sang along.” Probably as close as one could get to having the first act to rock the stadium also be the final one.

Much of the concert was released on CD and DVD, appropriately enough debuted at Citi Field in 2010.

As for who might have the best stories to tell of Shea Stadium’s musical past, one might think it could be Pete Flynn. Pete worked for decades for the stadium as a groundskeeper. In 1965 he drove The Beatles from the stage to an exit in the outfield wall. In 2008, he drove Paul from the outfield wall to the stage. Guess Paul told him he could “Drive My Car.”

July 16 – Mr. Motown Robinson’s Last Miracle-ous Concert

It was the end of an era 50 years ago today. That night in 1972 was when Smokey Robinson left the Miracles, with them doing their last regular concert together after being together for about 17 years. It was doubtless an emotional time for them…and for Motown Records, because in many ways, Smokey Robinson had “made” Motown.

The Miracles had formed as a more or less equal partnership of five teenage friends at Detroit’s Northern High School back in 1955. Back then they were known as the Five Chimes. After a few lineup changes, including adding member Bobby Rogers sister, Claudette, they’d become The Miracles.

Motown’s Berry Gordy saw them at a record tryout in 1957 and was impressed. Only back then he wasn’t yet “Motown’s Berry Gordy”. He was just an eager, energetic music fan with dreams. He particularly liked Robinson’s voice and was impressed by a notebook Smokey showed him full of songs he’d written. They formed a partnership of sorts, and Gordy paid for them to record a single. It went largely unnoticed, and they had trouble getting it released, so Robinson suggested Berry form his own record company…which he did, of course. Motown, and its companion brand, Tamla Records.

The Miracles had Motown’s first single, “Bad Girl”, but since the company was just a fledgling unknown outside of Detroit at the time, they had to get Chess Records to distribute it. It didn’t do much. But fast forward just a couple of years and lots was happening.

Smokey had married Claudette, and the group hit it big with “Shop Around,” a song written largely by Robinson. It got to #2 in the U.S. and earned Motown its first gold record. Detroit was on the map for something besides automobiles.

The ’60s were good to the Miracles, and to Motown. The group would grab 11 more top 20 hits in the decade, including “I Second That Emotion”, which topped the R&B charts. And unlike the majority of the Motown stars, The Miracles – primarily Smokey – wrote most of their own hits. They even wrote for some of the label’s other stars, including hits for The Temptations (“My Girl”) , Mary Wells (“My Guy”) and Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t That Peculiar.”) By the middle of the decade, it’s reported they were being paid over $100 000 a night for concerts…a huge amount at the time. No wonder Berry Gordy loved them, particularly Robinson.

In 1964, he named Smokey Vice President of Motown; around the same time Gordy changed the act’s name to Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. Also then, Claudette quit touring with the Miracles due to the stress it was putting on her which had probably been responsible for some miscarriages she’d gone through. She did continue to add backing vocals to the records though, until her husband left the group.

Which he wanted to do by 1969. He was getting tired of it, wanted to settle down with the family and devote more time to the office work at Motown. But he was talked out of it, partly because in 1970 ABC gave them a prime-time TV special and they had their first-ever #1 hit on Billboard“The Tears of A Clown”, which also went to #1 in the UK.

However, about a year later, he’d really had enough so they arranged a farewell tour for early 1972. It was a six month tour Pete Moore of the Miracles remembers as “it was amazing.” They played largely sold out shows, wrapping it up in Washington DC at the 4200-seat Carter Barron Ampitheater.

For this one, Claudette returned to the stage with them and they rolled through many of their own hits plus covers of  Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” and label-mate Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be there.” Near the end of the show, Smokey brought out Baltimore singer Billy Griffin and introduced him as the replacement singer. Much of the concert was released on CD as part of the Miracles Live Collection.

From there they went their separate ways. The Miracles, with Griffin, continued on for much of the decade, even scoring one #1 hit in 1975 with “Love Machine.” Smokey settled in, briefly, at Motown’s new offices in L.A. But he soon found that boring. He says of playing live it’s “probably my favorite part of this. Because I get a chance to be with the fans and react to them, have them react to us.” So by 1973, he was recording a solo album. He kept busy recording but didn’t really fit the times, it seemed until 1979 when he got to the top 10 with “Cruisin’”; in ’81 he’d do even better with “Being With You” a lovely ballad that went gold and to #1 in the UK and New Zealand and #2 at home.

The Miracles got back together, Smokey included, for a one-off in 1983, when they took part in the Motown 25 TV show, the one which famously introduced Michael Jackson’s “moon walk” to the masses.

Smokey Robinson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in their second group of inductees, in 1987. That wasn’t without some controversy because it ignored The Miracles, where he’d made his name and had some of his best-loved, most successful works. Pete Moore of the Miracles said “it was a slap in the face. Very disappointing. We are the premier group of Motown. We were there before there was a Motown!” That was corrected in 2012, when The Miracles as a group were inducted, after extensive lobbying from Robinson and others.

June 13 – The Great Road Reached Its Dead End

A dead end sign. That was perhaps what The Beatles found at the end of their journey. The end of “The Long and Winding Road” as it were… which was their final #1 hit, getting to the top of Billboard this day 52 years ago. The 1970 hit was their 20th, and final chart-topper in the States and came months after the band had actually disbanded. The next time the public would see a Beatle at #1 would be the end of that year when George Harrison got there with “My Sweet Lord.”

The Long and Winding Road” also got to #1 in Canada, but didn’t do nearly as well in most other markets, perhaps fittingly since it is one of the most controversial of Beatles songs.

Like so many of the other songs they put out at the tail-end of the ’60s (or in this case, the sunrise of the ’70s), while credited to the Beatles, it was very close to a solo work of one of them. In this case, Paul McCartney. He wrote it (although, true to Beatles form it is listed on records as “Lennon-McCartney”) while on a break at a farm he owned in Scotland. “I just sat down at my piano in Scotland, started playing and came up with that song, imagining it to be done by someone like Ray Charles. I have always found inspiration in the calm beauty of Scotland.” He would add, “it’s rather a sad song. I like writing sad songs… it saves having to go to a psychiatrist.”

He played a demo of it for Tom Jones, of all people, but Jones turned it down. So he took it to his bandmates, and they recorded two takes of it in early-’69, for what was going to be the “Get Back” project. The band wanted to get back to their roots and have simpler music, so for this one both Paul and Billy Preston, who was sitting in, playing electric piano, were at keyboards leaving John to play bass, oddly enough. George and Ringo played their usual instruments in a rather toned down fashion.

Get Back” the album got delayed and of course became Let It Be. The controversy came about when they decided to bring in Phil Spector – the “Wall of Sound” guy – to do a final mix and take at producing it after George Martin had left the room. Spector wanted anything but a simpler sound, and brought in a full orchestra – two dozen musicians plus a choir of 14 – to fill out the sparse song. Of the “Fab Four”, only Ringo was present in the studio that day in April ’70. He recalled that “Spector wanted tape echo on everything” and that he was throwing such tantrums that the orchestra refused to go on at one point. Anyway, he mixed in the orchestra and then asked all four if they were ok with the new mix. All four said they were.

We all said ‘yes’. Even at the beginning, Paul,” Ringo says. “He said, ‘yeah, it’s OK’. Then suddenly he didn’t want it to go out.” Indeed McCartney was furious and hated the new version which was rushed to the stores only days later. He later cited it as one of the main reasons he broke up the Beatles.

Critics weren’t all that much fonder of it than Paul was. Melody Maker said “Spector’s orchestrations add to the Bacharach atmosphere” which no one wanted on a Beatles record while Rolling Stone called it “virtually unlistenable with hideously cloying strings and a ridiculous choir.” Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys dissented mind you, calling it his “all-time favorite Beatles track.”

McCartney eventually got his way. The Beatles released the original, un-Spectorized version of “The Long and Winding Road” on Let It Be Naked in 2003… and eventually Ray Charles recorded a version of it too.

Although it was their last #1 hit and technically came out after the band ceased to exist, it’s hard to keep a band that good down. They’d still score two more top 10 singles later, “Got To Get You Into My Life” in 1976, released as a single from a compilation album and “Free As A Bird”, an old demo of theirs finished off by the three living members and Jeff Lynne of ELO, in 1995.

May 19 – Solo Careers, Here We Come?

Separate ways here they came – The Smiths wrapped up recording their final album, Strangeways Here We Come this day in 1987. Few other bands split as quickly or permanently. Although their record company wouldn’t announce the band’s split until that fall, as music historian Alan Cross says “the band ceased to exist the moment Marr left the studio.”

Tensions had been high between Morrissey and Johnny Marr for months. Morrissey, surprisingly, wasn’t happy with their commercial success to that point (which seems odd given his apparent disregard for doing anything to make himself popular or avoid controversy), while equally surprising, Marr, the superb guitarist who gave them their sound was tiring of the jingly Rickenbacker guitar sounds song after song and wanted to broaden their range. He did get his way a wee bit, bringing in a synthesizer to add some string-like effects on a couple of songs, an autoharp which he played on “I Won’t Share You” and he even got Morrissey to play piano on “Death of a Disco Dancer.” They battled over the band’s plans for a tour and the “last straw”, according to Marr, was when Morrissey insisted on putting a cover song Marr hated on the B-side of the lead single, “Girlfriend in a Coma”. “Moz” got his way and won the battle, but arguably lost the war. They did a ’60s cover, “Work Is A Four-letter Word” and had it as the b-side. The song was done originally by blue-eyed soul singer Cilla Black. Marr said “that was the last straw! I didn’t form a group to perform Cilla Black songs!”

He left the day the recording finished for L.A. , “so off I went and I never saw Morrissey again.” The album did well but didn’t break any new ground for them, hitting #2 in the UK but selling less than their previous album, The Queen is Dead. In North America, it hit #27 in Canada and #55 in the U.S., their best-showing to date but still not representative of the influence and appeal they had at home. “Girlfriend in a Coma” got to #13 there, their fifth-straight top 20 hit (it also gave Douglas Coupland the title for a popular ’90s novel) and the characteristically gloomily-titled “Last Night I Dreamed That Somebody Loved Me” and “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” also did OK for them in Britain, although neither gained the “classic” status that their fans decreed on most of their earlier hits.

Morrissey was quick out of the gate, releasing his first solo album in 1988. To date, he’s put out 13 solo studio albums, with mixed commercial results – three hit #1 in the UK, but others have struggled to sell. Johnny Marr’s gone on to be a part of several other bands and back up acts like the Pretenders and Bryan Ferry on guitar. Strangeways, for the record, is a notorious Manchester jail.

March 28 – Duke Did Noble Job Of Winning Genesis Fans

Somewhere between being one of the biggest but most avant garde and perhaps just slightly pompous art rock bands of the ’70s and one of the world’s most popular straight-ahead radio-oriented pop bands of the ’80s, Genesis straddled the decades with something a little in between. Duke, their tenth studio album, came out this day in 1980. In their British homeland at least, it’d been released to American markets earlier in that week 42 years ago. While all remnants of their artsy, prog rock passed weren’t entirely erased, it certainly pointed to the direction they would take in the new decade.

Genesis had begun and spent the first half of the ’70s as a quintet, largely under the control of quirky Peter Gabriel. He left the band mid-decade, followed by a guitarist named Steve Hackett, leaving a trio with the balance of power shifting towards drummer (and suddenly singer) Phil Collins. We heard a bit of what that would entail with And Then There Were Three, Duke stepped it up a bit more.

It had been a busy time for the band. It was only two years (to the day in the UK) between albums, and they’d capitalized on their newfound appeal, largely from the single “Follow You, Follow Me” , to tour the world and increase their profile substantially. This however, wasn’t good for home lives and Phil Collins marriage was on the rocks. He put the band on hiatus for a bit in ’79 as he moved to Canada temporarily to try and salvage that relationship, unsuccessfully as it turned out. The divorce that ensued ended up giving him albums worth of material as it turned out. In the downtime, all three were writing music and both Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks would both put out solo records around the same time as Duke; Collins himself wrote a number of tunes that became his first solo, Face Value during the time as well. Surprisingly, what is now seen as his signature song, “In the Air Tonight”, was written for the band and could’ve ended up on this album, but they weren’t keen on it so it was shelved until he put out his own record. That was a bit of an “oops!” but it didn’t really harm the fortunes of Genesis.

When they reconvened at the end of ’79, they each had some songs written and they decided to put some collaborative efforts on the album (including the first single, “Turn it on Again” and “Behind the Lines”) as well as a couple of songs written by each of the individual members. One of Collins’ contributions was the big hit off it, “Misunderstanding.”

They recorded it in Sweden, with the help of producer David Hentschel, whom they’d worked with regularly before. He’d come to prominence in the music world being a studio engineer and playing synthesizer for Elton John on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Sweden was new for them, but not the idea of recording on “the continent”; they’d made their last couple of studio records in the Netherlands and most of their previous live one in France. By all reports they quite enjoyed the process and found it one of their easiest records to make.

There were little nods to the band’s early days, like the 10 minute piece “Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End” which ends the record, and a loose – very loose – concept to the album about a guy called “Albert” who went by the nickname “duke”, for the most part it was a solid collection of relatively smart, catchy pop tunes.

That might have been a change for the fans, but evidently it was a good one… and the number of fans increased as well. It became the first #1 album for them at home and in Canada as well and in the U.S. it got to #11, likewise their best showing to date. The first single, “Turn it on Again” made it to #8 in the UK and Italy, and deserved a bit better fate over here where it just missed the top 40. However, “Misunderstanding” (which probably set the template for Collins’ work of the following five years) scored them their first American top 20 hit and zoomed to #1 in Canada, while flopping in their homeland.

Critics by and large saw the “new” Genesis as an enjoyable, possibly “new and improved” one. Smash Hits in the UK gave it a so-so 6 out of 10 but Sounds there rated it 4-star, saying Collins sounded “more convincing” than before and that “no Genesis fan could be disappointed.” Rolling Stone found it to have a “refreshing urgency” and singled out “Turn it on Again” as “vibrant rock and roll.” Years later, allmusic gave it 4-stars and called it a “major leap forward” for the band and when they “leaped into the fray” of being pop stars. The ’80s were kind to Genesis, as a band, and Collins solo as well as Mike Rutherford’s spin-off, Mike + The Mechanics.

But, as they say, “all good things must come to an end” and Genesis finally called it quits yesterday, performing what they say will be their last-ever show, in London. Peter Gabriel was in attendance but didn’t join them in the show. Of course, Collins’ health has suffered of late and he no longer can drum, and in fact has trouble standing up, so perhaps it’s time for them to stop and look back at their catalog…and maybe say “Turn it On Again!”

 

March 12 – Weller Jam-med One More As A Gift To Fans

“A sad finale for a remarkable band.” That’s how the BBC reviewed an album that came out on this day in 1982. And while it won them a new batch of fans in North America, it would seem most Brits probably agreed with the “Beeb”’s opinion of The Gift, the sixth and final studio album by The Jam.

By that point, The Jam had been around for a decade and become one of the UK’s favorites with their short, rocking, socially-aware songs that got them generally labeled as “punk”. The label was probably incorrect in sound, although the trio did at times hang out with other punk acts of that era. As many have pointed out, The Jam was leading what was considered a “Mod revival” and were influenced by The Who and The Kinks, as well as to a lesser extent, American R&B. Perhaps surprisingly, The Quietus noted that while The Jam’s driving force, singer/guitarist Paul Weller, knew Pete Townshend, they “clashed” as, according to Townshend, Weller thought The Who an “establishment rock act that punk had bust out against” and considered the older band too focused on commercial success.

Townshend wasn’t the only one Weller was not getting along with that well by this point in time. His bandmates , bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler were feeling unappreciated as Weller and his growing love of Stax and Motown was taking more and more control over the band’s sound and direction. Thus was the back story for The Gift.

The Gift continued to see the band’s sound change, and showed a distinctive push towards a reflection of the American R&B and soul. While, as allmusic would point out, “Weller can obviously do soulful – his voice has never sounded better”, and there were some standout songs, overall, the 11-song, 32 minute work was a little lacking.

That didn’t stop it from being a hit, mind you. In Britain, it became their first #1 album and their third gold one. It hit new highs in New Zealand (#10) and Canada (#22), largely on the strength of the great leadoff single, their third British #1 song, “Town Called Malice”. The jaunty rant about the underclass, powered along by more than a passing glance at The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” was one of the great successes of “punk” – an angry tune that tears a strip off both the government, and lazy, dull people who fall behind and blame others, while still sounding happy and eminently danceable. It was their first top 20 hit in Canada, and although not a mainstream hit in the U.S., it did break them on college radio and the few “alternative rock” stations of the day, like KROQ in L.A. where it was their 13th biggest song of the year.

The next single, “Precious” was well-liked as well, with its frenetic, funky sound and added saxes. Their ode to the working man, “Just Who Is The 5 O’clock Hero”, was subject to mixed reviews, but was popular enough at home to get to #8 despite being available only as an import 7”.

The rest of the album, however, was seen as rather uninspired. Allmusic would rate it only 2.5-stars, whereas three of their previous ones had garnered perfect 5-star ratings. It noted that it was “uneven” and “marked by indulgences” and that despite only one song clocking in at 4 minutes, it was flawed with “unnecessarily long songs.” Likewise, the BBC lauded “Town Called Malice” and the “lashing, funk-struck workout ‘Precious’” but said they were the only great tracks. Later on, Weller would seem to agree, suggesting in liner notes of reissues that his bandmates weren’t “sufficiently adept” to do anything but simple punk songs, to which the BBC suggested “the superb rhythm section is less culpable than Weller’s sub-standard songs.”

With dissention like that, it should have been little surprise that The Jam broke up before the year’s end and about twelve months later, Weller was already working in a new band, Style Council. Perhaps one final gift that The Gift delivered was influencing another, bigger record the next year. One can’t help but notice the similarity of the cover, with its pictures of the band swathed in a trio of bright colors, with The Police’s 1983 biggie, Synchronicity.