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.

 

March 1 – Germans Saw Grunge’s Last Hurrah

The funny thing about history is that more often than not, you don’t know when you see it being made. Such was in all probability the case for several thousand people in Germany on this night in 1994, crowded into an old abandoned airport building in Munich. They figured they were just at another rock show, but history shows it would turn out to be the final performance ever by Nirvana.

Hot on the outrageous success of Nevermind, the trio had released In Utero in September, 1993 to a confused fan base but largely good reviews and had spent the subsequent months promoting the hell out of it. Although two decades on, the album may not sound that out-of-place when compared to its predecessor, it seemed at the time that no matter what Nirvana did, it wasn’t going to satisfy its new, huge fan base. Returning to their punk roots was going to alienate the newbies who heard them played next to U2 and The Cure on radio; too radio-friendly a sound was sure to annoy the hardcore fans and earn them the title “sell-outs.” The pressure on Kurt Cobain was intense. As the NME noted in its review, In Utero was a “profoundly confused record” that veered between punk and pop, “like a great band staggering around looking for a direction.” They considered Cobain to be “scared of the contentment he’s slipped into.” Nevertheless, the British publication graded the album an 8 out of 10; Rolling Stone was even more enthusiastic, rating it a 4-and-a-half out of 5 stars. The album entered the U.S. charts at #1 and was at #3 in Canada within days and earned platinum status in both countries by the end of September.

While popular in Europe, they didn’t have quite the same level of super-stardom, which no doubt was something Geffen Records wanted to fix. So after wrapping up an initial American tour for the album on Jan. 8 in Seattle, the band departed for a lengthy and grueling tour of Europe, with shows almost every night in February in Germany, Spain, France and even Slovenia. To fill out their sound, they brought along a couple of female cellists and guitarist Pat Smear (who would later join Dave Grohl in the Foo Fighters).

The demands of the tour, and of stardom in general, wore on Cobain. He was suffering from stomach problems that had plagued him for much of his life, and while apparently happy with his new wife Courtney Love, he presumably was stressed out by being apart from her so much of the time. All of that didn’t help him with his drug issues. Dave Grohl told Rolling Stone in 2013 that In Utero could be seen either as a “remarkable achievement (but) you can also remember it as a really f**-up time.” He recalled his time together with Kurt recording the album and touring for it thusly: “Living with Kurt was funny. He isolated himself in a lot of ways, emotionally. But he had a genuine sweet nature.” The isolation and physical strain was noticeable during the tour. Fan site livenirvana.com considered their Valentine’s Day concert in Paris the best of the whole tour but by Feb.22, in Italy it remarked that “Cobain is conspicuous by his near total silence between songs.”

The original international airport in Munich had been replaced by a new one in 1992, and eventually was redeveloped as a convention and shopping center, but in the years between, the Flughafen-Munchen Riem had been used for rock concerts and raves. Nirvana had been booked in for the first two nights of March.

The band took the stage and surprised the crowd by opening with a grungy but decent cover of the Cars song, “My Best Friend’s Girl,” a rather reasonable tip of the hat given that the Cars themselves had originally been considered “punk” but were picked up on by the mainstream audiences when Cobain was a kid. (At another show on the tour, they’d opened with a cover of the Knack’s “My Sharona”.) The fans ate it up but the night seemed ill-fated. The power went out briefly a few songs in, causing them to have to stop and then kick back into “Come As You Are” when the power came back. Ironically, Krist Novoselic joked at that point “Grunge is dead. Nirvana’s over.” And while they did traditional songs from their setlist such as “Dumb”, “In Bloom” and “Pennyroyal Tea”, they somehow didn’t perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, their signature tune. They’d been performing the song right after “Come As You Are” on the tour, so whether they just forgot it or made a conscious decision to cut it that night is open for debate. Either way, Cobain’s voice was struggling. Even a healthy man would get worn out from screaming his way through nightly sets of their music He was suffering from bronchitis and his voice was fading through the concert. Laryngitis was setting in.

About 70 minutes after they kicked off with the Cars’ song, they set into “Heart-shaped Box”, the album’s biggest hit and the song they closed all the In Utero concerts with. It was the shortest concert of the tour. As they left the stage, they likely still expected to be on the same stage doing the same material the following night, but Kurt’s laryngitis soon put the kibosh on that. A number of March concerts were canceled, and Cobain headed to Rome to meet up with Courtney and enjoy a bit of R&R – rest and relaxation rather than rock’n’roll. On March 4, she found Kurt unconscious on their hotel floor in Rome, in a coma induced by an overdose of Rohypnol (a prescription insomnia drug) and champagne. Whether it was an accident or a suicide attempt, we’ll never know. We do know it caused the band to cancel 25 or so remaining European concerts scheduled for the spring.

They returned to Seattle. Grohl recalls the last time he saw Cobain, at their accountant’s office. “He smiled and said ‘hey, what’s up?’ and I said ‘I’ll give you a call’ and he said ‘Okay.’ Remarkably, Grohl doesn’t mention the final German show at all in his recent memoir and pays surprisingly little attention to the Nirvana era in general. 

Days later, Cobain was dead from a gunshot legally ascribed as a suicide but right up there with Sasquatch and Area 51 when it comes to conspiracy theories.

History is funny. Presumably Novoselic had no idea on March 1 that Nirvana was over, yet his joke hit the nail eerily on the head.

In Utero went on to sell about 15 million copies worldwide; Grohl went on to long-lasting success fronting the Foo Fighters and posthumous live releases kept Nirvana fans somewhat satisfied through the ’90s, but after this night, no one would ever see Kurt Cobain yelling out anthems for a generation again.

The Cars song as well as “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Drain You” from the March1 concert were released as part of their Live and Loud DVD (most of which was recorded at a Seattle concert from the same tour.) And should you have been in attendance in Munich that night, know that not only did you witness a piece of music history but that you might be in possession of some valuable keepsakes. In recent years, tickets from the concert were fetching  upwards of $2500 on e-bay.

February 22 – Zep Went Through Out Door On A High Note

Sailing high one last time, Led Zeppelin‘s last hit song hit its peak this week in 1980 – no “fool”ing! “Fool in the Rain” hit #21 on Billboard this day in 1980. Of course, by that time, In Through The Out Door had been on the shelves for a few months and troubles were brewing in the Zep camp…in no small part due to the excessive excesses of drummer John Bonham and guitar god Jimmy Page. As we know, Bonham would die of that excess about half a year later and the Zeppelin would crash to the ground.

As big and legendary as Led Zep were, it might be a big surprise to many they never scored any #1 hit singles. “Stairway to Heaven”? Good luck finding that on Billboard‘s Hot 100 singles list or the CHUM chart north of the border in Canada. By getting to merely #21, “Fool in the Rain’ was their biggest U.S. hit since “Dyer Maker” seven years earlier. Not that it mattered much – their albums sold in the tens of millions, as presumably fans went out and bought the LP as soon as it came out and couldn’t be bothered by collecting 7” vinyl. That said, “Fool in the Rain” still ranks as one of their enduringly most popular tracks, and a fitting swan song for the group which created the Swan Song label.

In Through the Out Door saw a lot more impetus from musical genius John Paul Jones, and singer Robert Plant than previous records, largely because the other two members were… well, honestly too out of it to add much. Although Bonham could still drum. This one , with its highly unusual 12/8 time signature, was, according to allmusic, “a showcase for Bonham – it’s a monster groove.” Plant and Jones got the idea for the samba-style rhythm while vacationing in Argentina to watch World Cup Soccer. John Paul played both bass and keyboards on the track, one of the reasons they never played the song in concert … he couldn’t do both effectively at once and they didn’t typically bring in extras to fill in the sound playing live. Another of course, was that the band would be dead only months after the record became popular.

The lyrics are open to debate, but only to a limited degree. Some say the idea was a guy waiting for a blind date on a street corner – the wrong corner, natch – for his date and feeling a “fool in the rain”, while others suggest it was a straight forward couple with the gal deciding to ditch the dude by standing him up. Either way, standing alone on a corner isn’t a great way to spend an evening. Doing so in the rain, less ideal yet!

The single hit #14 in Canada, but their Brit countrymen didn’t buy enough to even have it make their charts in the UK. In the end, a good ending to an epic band which signified the decade just ended at the time. Whether we agree with PopMatters which said it was the only “fun” track on the album, it’s hard to disagree with their assessment of it being the “Standout” . Get in and take it out… maybe the best straight-out single from the band that fought Pink Floyd for the title of the best Non-singles band.

February 18 – Queen’s Last Speech From The Throne

We looked at the Brit Awards earlier this week. The 1990 ones, held on this day in London, were not especially noteworthy in most respects. Fine Young Cannibals took home the Best Album for their The Raw and the Cooked, Phil Collins won the Best Single for “Just Another Day in Paradise.” But the ’90 awards have since gone on to gain historical poignancy. Terry Ellis, co-founder of Chrysalis Records and producer of several bands such as Jethro Tull hosted the night. The highlight, as it often is, was the presentation of the award for lifetime achievement, known as Outstanding Contribution To Music. On this night, the fitting recipient was Queen.

Of course, in retrospect, Queen seem like one of the best, biggest and most important Brit acts of all-time. It was coming up to the 20th anniversary of their first show. However, although popular, at the time they weren’t universally revered nor were they on a winning streak so to speak. They’d only won one Brit Award before, for single of the year with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And although they’d put out their sixth album of the ’80s a few months earlier (The Miracle), their triumphant set at Live Aid seemed almost a lifetime back. Although The Miracle did become their sixth #1 album at home, it was close to a flop in North America, where it peaked at #24 in the U.S. and their last really big hit had been a decade earlier with songs from The Game. Even in Britain, their sales were going downhill and, surprisingly to most, the band known for their exuberant and excellent live shows hadn’t toured at all for the album. Rumors abounded.

All that should have been put aside for the night as their excellence was honored. A short video mixed clips of the band at Live Aid with messages of congratulations from the likes of Phil Collins, Elton John, Bob Geldof and Roger Daltrey (who said if he had any advice at all for them, it’d be “don’t break up!”). But the actual acceptance was rather a denouement.

The band, dressed neatly, came up to the podium. Brian May spoke on behalf of the band, thanking the awards and especially those “outside the industry” for letting them do what they do and “go out on a bit of a musical limb.” A decidedly somber-looking and thinner than expected Freddie Mercury, in a tasteful light-colored suit but lacking his trademark moustache, stood to the side, just quietly saying “Good night, thank you” as they sped off the stage barely three minutes in.

As we now know, it was the last time we’d see Mercury in public. He’d been diagnosed with AIDS some three years earlier and was in poor health, which the band knew but the public was kept in the dark about despite ongoing tabloid stories based on innuendo and second-hand reports. Freddie passed away in 1991.

Good night, and thank you, Freddie.

January 30 – You Saw The Movie, 53 Years Ago Was The Real Thing

To borrow from another popular group of the day, The Doors, “this is the end.” Or almost for the 1960s musical kings, The Beatles. If you happened to be in London this day in 1969, around Seville Row, and looked up, you would have seen the Fab Four playing a 40-minute concert up on the roof of their non-descript five-storey Apple Records office. Or, more likely, you probably saw them do that in last year’s well-reviewed documentary, Get Back

It was the first time they’d played together in public for over two years and would turn out to be their last public performance. They were still doing well commercially, with the “White Album” selling huge quantities but critics were starting to question their creativity and direction and the band had gotten to the point they could barely stand each other. Behind the scenes, Yoko Ono’s presence with John was irritating the others and the death of manager Brian Epstein had left them feeling a little adrift.

They had an idea to use the song “Get Back” as a nucleus for a straight-ahead, live rock album but their time together working on that was according to George Harrison “the low of all-time” and he actually quit the band for several days before being cajoled back with the help of Billy Preston (who is the only non-Beatle to ever get credited with co-writing one of their originals, “Get Back.”) Plans to perform a show to record and introduce new material at on a cruise ship or at an African ampitheatre in the desert fell through, resulting in them donning fur coats and playing the set in 45-degree windy weather on their roof. As well as “Get Back” they introduced songs “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Dig A Pony” to the sometimes confused people below. They perhaps might have played longer but London bobbies (police) were trying to get them to shut down due to noise complaints…and given how cold it was, they didn’t seem to complain that much!

Fans looking for the building  will be disappointed to find that Apple Records headquarters are now an Abercrombie and Fitch store. They won’t be disappointed to find that “Don’t Let Me Down”, a popular new song they performed in the set that wasn’t on Let It Be (unlike “Get Back”) is now readily available online and on Beatles compilation albums. And recently, the entire concert has been released to streaming services.