Monday, July 16, 2018

The Dizzy, Dancing Way You Feel

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century: "Both Sides Now" (Joni Mitchell, 1967)
Joni Mitchell wrote "Both Sides Now" at the age of 22 while she was still just working in folk clubs and hadn't released a single of her own, much less an album. The lyrics were inspired by Saul Bellow, she explained in an interview to a radio show in 1967: "I was reading a book, and I haven’t finished it yet, called Henderson the Rain King. And there’s a line in it that I especially got hung up on that was about when he was flying to Africa and searching for something, he said that in an age when people could look up and down at clouds, they shouldn’t be afraid to die. And so I got this idea 'from both sides now.'”

Dave Von Ronk was the first singer to cover "Both Sides Now" (under the title "Clouds"), although he seems almost comically inappropriate for its sensibility of girlish indecision. Joni was at a bar in Greenwich Village in May 1967, reeling over a breakup, when she met the session musician Al Kooper, who was crashing at the time at Judy Collins' apartment. Joni and Al got to talking, and she told him he wrote songs. After the bar closed, the two of them went to Joni's apartment so she could play him some of her stuff. 

 "Her songs were incredible and totally original," Kooper said. "She would finish one, and I would say: more, more.  One song especially killed me: 'Michael from Mountains.'  I thought it would be great for Judy."  Even though it was three a.m., he told Joni they had to call Judy Collins and play her this song.

Judy Collins remembers that Kooper had other things on his mind as well. "I've just met this girl here in the bar," he recalls Al saying. "She and I were talking and she told me she wrote songs. She's good-looking and I figured I could follow her home, which couldn't be a bad thing no matter how you look at it."

Judy remembered Joni playing "Both Sides Now," and instantly recognizing it as "absolutely mind-boggling." The song first appeared on Collins' 1967 album Wildflowers, but was remixed several times before it was released as a single in October 1968. It became Collins' first hit single, rising eventually to Number 8 on the Billboard pop charts. (I've seen reports that Mitchell didn't like Collins' version, but they've also been friends for about 50 years now, so she couldn't have hated it that much.)

Mitchell's first album, Song to a Seagull, came out in March 1968, before Collins' cover of "Both Sides Now" appeared. After the song became a hit, Joni's own version appeared on her second LP, titled Clouds after you-know-what. All told, "Both Sides Now" has been covered a whopping 1250 times, which seems almost unbelievable, but Joni's website has a list of all 1250 artists, including Chet Atkins, Harry Belafonte, Bing Crosby, Blossom Dearie, Neil Diamond, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Robert Guillaume, Hole, Carly Rae Jepsen, KC and the Sunshine Band, Willie Nelson (who had an album titled Both Sides Now), and Frank Sinatra.

But the definitive version will always be Judy Collins'. "Some people are bound to sing certain songs," Collins said of the three a.m. phone call from Al Kooper. "It was instantly obvious to me that 'Both Sides Now' was my song." Here she is:

Saturday, June 9, 2018

We're After the Same Rainbow's End

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part V:
"Moon River" (Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, 1961)

Sometimes you just get lucky: The original title of "Moon River" was "Blue River," until lyricist
Johnny Mercer realized there was already a song by that title. Forced to find a new name, needing a long vowel sound in that first syllable, Mercer came up with "Moon River," which is miles better. Aside from the occasional Chicago River on St. Patrick's Day, most rivers are somewhat blue, so the modifier doesn't add much in that case. But a "Moon River," you can only imagine at night, with a big full yellow moon reflected in its ripples. That simple switch makes the whole title - the whole song - so much more evocative. "Blue River" is not and would never be a classic song. "Moon River" almost instantly is.

It's also an instant classic after those first three notes, nearly replicating that octave leap we were just discussing in "Over the Rainbow." Composer Henry Mancini supposedly took a month to write those first three notes, but once he had those in place, the rest of the song took a half an hour.

Mancini knew he was writing the song for Audrey Hepburn to sing in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Hepburn wasn't much of a singer, with a range of about an octave, so those initial two notes pretty much proscribed the song's breadth. It's also in the key of C, with no sharps or flats, which I guess would make it easier to sing, but I don't really know. I can't sing.

The film's producers initially asked that someone else to dub Hepburn's voice for the performance in the movie. Then after the first screening, a producer demanded the song - with Audrey plucking a guitar out on her fire escape - be cut. Audrey herself insisted that it stay in, famously declaring, "Over my dead body."

Soon after Breakfast at Tiffany's was released, in the fall of 1961, Henry Mancini released an almost-instrumental single version of the song, with a chorale coming in on vocals about halfway through the record. Jerry "the Iceman" Butler also released a surprisingly unsatisfactory version, where his vocals stayed persistently behind the orchestra for the whole record. It's kind of annoying. Nevertheless, both versions were hits, peaking at an identical number 11 spot on the Billboard charts, with the Iceman's getting there two weeks before Mancini's. (Both records also peaked at No. 3 on the Adult Contemporary charts, then known as the Easy Listening chart.)

One name you haven't seen so far in this article is Andy Williams, even though "Moon River" became his signature song. In early 1962, he released an album called Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes. Although his version wasn't issued as a single, it was well-received enough that Andy was asked to perform the song at the Academy Awards in April of 1962, where it was up for Best Original Song (it won).

"Moon River" was never a single for him, although it didn't really need to be. Williams titled his autobiography Moon River and Me, and more significantly, called his theater in Branson, Missouri, the Andy Williams Moon River Theater. The stage was wider than a mile.

Since 1961, "Moon River" has been covered by literally hundreds of artists, from Frank Sinatra to Frank Ocean.  R.E.M. used to cover it live, back when Michael Stipe still had a voice; it was quite nice:

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part IV:
"Over the Rainbow" (Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, 1939)

The octave leap at the opening of the chorus of "Over the Rainbow" is maybe the most significant combination of two notes in the entire American songbook. The contrast between the two notes perfectly captures the sense of yearning and escape the song conveys. We'll hear that octave leap on two other songs in this series, neither of which I chose for that reason and both of which were written after this one, so we'll give "Over the Rainbow" the bulk of the credit. That same motif also shows up in David Bowie's "Starman," which I guess is a spoiler that "Starman" isn't going to end up on this list.

The octave leap is not technically the opening of the song, though. Like many of the songs of the 1930s, "Over the Rainbow" has an introductory verse that is usually dropped in modern renditions of the song. Indeed, Judy Garland doesn't even include the verse on the version she sings in The Wizard of Oz.

To back up for a second, "Over the Rainbow" was composed by Harold Arlen, nee Hyman Arluck, who already had a stunning string of songs behind him - "Stormy Weather," "Let's Fall in Love" - when producer Arthur Freed asked him and lyricist Yip Harburg to whip up a batch of songs for The Wizard of Oz. ("Yip" wasn't really a nickname, by the way - Harburg's middle name was Yipsel.) The two of them made $25,000 on a contract that lasted 14 weeks.

The pair had already completed "We're Off to See the Wizard," "The Merry Old Land of Oz," and "Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead," when Arlen decided to focus on a big ballad for Judy Garland to sing. Harold and his wife were driving down Sunset Boulevard to Grauman's Chinese Theater when the melody struck him, and he pulled out a pad of paper and wrote it down right there in the car: "It was as if the Lord said, 'Well, here it is, now stop worrying about it!'" (In 1981, Harburg was killed in a car wreck on Sunset Boulevard.)

When Arlen played it for his lyricist the next day, Harburg didn't care for it, finding the melody too grandiose for a young girl from small-town Kansas. Arlen turned to Ira Gershwin for a second opinion, and when Gershwin liked it, Harburg grudgingly wrote lyrics for it. 

"We have this little girl, a girl yearning to be out of this little damn little place, this Kansas," Harburg said shortly before his death in 1981. "She wants to get somewhere, anywhere. Where shall it be? Kansas is a dry, arid place, and the only colorful thing in her life is a rainbow. The rainbow was good enough for Noah, and it's good enough for me."

The song was nearly cut from the film, as the studio felt it made the Kansas sequence drag on too long, but Freed and Arlen fought to keep it in. There was supposed to be a reprise of the song, sung by Dorothy in the witch's castle to remind her of being home in Kansas, but people felt it was too sad. Both Garland and the crew cried when she recorded it.

The Wizard of Oz came out in August 1939, and Garland's single version of "Over the Rainbow " was released that September. There weren't pop charts yet, but by all accounts, the song was a huge smash from the beginning, and it's never gone away. It was named the greatest song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts, and who am I to disagree?

"Over the Rainbow" also lived on in a classic story told by Pete Barbutti on The Tonight Show, one of the few jokes about a song that pivots on the melody rather than the lyrics: 


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Long Distance Information

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part III
"Memphis, Tennessee" (Chuck Berry, 1958)

"If I had to name the best short story in the form of a song lyric, I suspect the winner would be Chuck Berry’s 'Memphis, Tennessee,' first released as a B-side in 1959," wrote Verlyn Klinkenborg in 1999.  At the very least, in my estimation, "Memphis, Tennessee" has the greatest twist-ending of any song in what Casey Kasem liked to call the rock era.

The song would work fine on its own without the twist, if it were merely the story of a man struggling to get in touch with Marie, the woman who broke his heart. The details are indelibly rendered: "hurry-home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye," "my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall."

But the song's ending flips the whole thing over, turning the narrator into a loving father who can't stop thinking about his little girl. There's no cheating it, either - every detail in the story that we thought was about a lost romance works perfectly for the lost daughter. Chuck knows exactly what story he's telling here; there's no chance of getting lost in the weeds, like you do in "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia."

As Klinkenborg alludes to, "Memphis, Tennessee" was originally the B-side to "Back in the U.S.A." It never charted for Chuck, but people noticed it, and almost immediately began covering it. The Beatles played it at their audition for Decca Records on January 1, 1962; Pete Best's drumming probably ruined whatever chance they had on that day.

Anyway, here we have one of the greatest lyrics ever to appear in a rock song. But what makes "Memphis, Tennessee" so remarkable is that even if you strip out its greatest strength, it's still a hit. The blues guitarist Lonnie Mack recorded an instrumental version, titled simply "Memphis," in 1963. Without that classic lyric, the song still went to Number Five on the Billboard pop chart.

That's really something, isn't it? It's as if someone recorded a spoken-word version of "Boogie Oogie Oogie," and made a hit out of it. That would kind of give you more respect for "Boogie Oogie Oogie," wouldn't it?

The biggest hit version of "Memphis" was the one recorded by Johnny Rivers in his quasi-live style, which hit Number 2 in 1964. The country singer Fred Knobloch (most familiar to me as the author of "Killin' Time") took his own version to the Top Ten of the country charts in 1980.  

Buck Owens and Roy Orbison both cut it as well. The Beatles played it FIVE TIMES on their BBC Radio show, one of which was included on their monumental Live at the BBC box set. I wonder if they ever did it as an instrumental.

Monday, April 30, 2018

That's Just the Way the Story Goes

 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part II:
"Without You" (Pete Ham and Tom Evans, 1970)

"Without You" was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans, who were the two primary songwriters in Badfinger, the Beatle-discovered pop band that recorded for Apple Records. Ham wrote the verse after leaving his girlfriend at home one evening to go work on a recording: "Well I can't forget tomorrow, when I think of all my sorrow, I had you there but then I let you go, and now it's only fair that I should let you know...." Evans wrote the chorus after leaving his German girlfriend in Berlin, then deciding he couldn't go on without her: "I can't live, if living is without you, I can't live, I can't give any more."

"Without You" made its debut on the second Badfinger album, No Dice, released in November 1970. The lead single from that record was "No Matter What," while "Without You" was considered just a strong album track. It was never released as a single, either in the U.S. or in Badfinger's native U.K.

At that point, the chorus of the song had a clipped feel to it:
I can't live [long pause]
If living is without you
I can't live [long pause]
I can't give any more

Shortly after the release of No Dice, Harry Nilsson happened to hear the song - not the Badfinger rednition, but someone else covering it. "I was at a friend's house in Laurel Canyon," he said many years later. "It was one of those Sixties sit-on-the-floor parties. [Ed. note: It was the Seventies, but whatever.] And I heard that song. I thought it was an obscure Beatles track.... it sounded Lennon-ish. I asked all my friends. But then I found it wasn't the Beatles, it was Badfinger."

Nilsson recorded the song some time in the first half of 1971, and on October 11, 1971, "Without You" became the lead single off Nilsson Schmilsson, which followed in November.  "You have to have hits, I don't care who you are," Nilsson said. "In the end, 'Without You' gave us that boost we needed. It was perfect." Nilsson's version of "Without You" reached Number One on the Billboard charts on February 13, 1972, and stayed there for four weeks. 

Of course, Nilsson changed the chorus of the song, such that it now went:
I can't li-i-i-ii-ii-i-ve
If living is without you

I can't li-i-i-ii-i-ve
I can't give anymore

My question is, did Nilsson decide to elongate those vowels, or was that the way he heard that anonymous singer do it in Laurel Canyon? I guess we'll never know, because Nilsson's dead now. Either way, that vocal choice changed the song from a nice Beatlesque tune to a classic. 

It's hard to imagine Mariah Carey wanting to cover the song without those blasts of melismatic goodness, but she recorded the Nilsson-ified version for her third album, Music Box, released in August of 1993. Harry Nilsson died on January 15, 1994, and nine days later, "Without You" became the third single off Mariah's latest album. Was that a coincidence? I find it hard to believe they would be able to gin up the release of a single in nine days, or that Columbia would make that kind of financial decision based on nostalgia for a largely forgotten singer, but who knows.

At any rate, "Without You" went to Number Three on the Billboard charts. That was actually a mildly disappointing performance for a Carey single; among her first ten single releases, she had already had eight Number Ones, and Number Two, and a Number Five hit. But it was huge in Europe, going to Number One in the U.K., Austria, Belgium and Iceland. 

And it's never gone away since then. There have been a reported 180 cover versions of "Without You" released, and at least that many people have done the song on the various talent shows that mob the airwaves. Pete Ham and Tom Evans wouldn't know about any of that; they each hanged themselves, Ham in 1975 and Evans in 1983.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

You're Mickey Mouse!

The Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part I:
"You're the Top" (Cole Porter, 1934)

Cole Porter wrote “You’re the Top” in 1934, for his new musical Anything Goes, and in some senses it’s just a list of the best things that were around in 1934. It’s a testament to Porter’s genius that things he credited with being paragons of greatness in 1934 remain, almost without exception, paragons of greatness today.

Many of those paragons were fairly new in their day: Mickey Mouse had made his first film merely six years earlier, while Mahatma Gandhi had been named Time's Man of the Year in 1930. Garbo and the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire had been making movies for less than ten years. I don’t understand what a Bendel bonnet is, but that’s about the only thing that Porter noticed in 1934 that has completely fallen out of favor by 2018. Unless you count Ovaltine, which I wouldn't.

If that dazzling list of exemplars were the only clever thing about this song, it would be delightful, but it’s more than a delight; it’s a classic. It would have been very easy for Porter to maintain the same rhythm for each member of his list of paragons, but he varies them in consistently refreshing ways:

You're sublime
You're a turkey dinner

You're the time
Of the Derby winner
How simple it would have been to make that last couplet something like “You’re ‘Swing Time’/You’re the Derby winner,” but how much more fun it is stretched out like that. The recharged rhythm keeps you paying attention. And it lends the comparison more texture for the person being celebrated to be analogized to time, rather than another corporeal entity.

What makes it even more fun is the chorus, where the singer returns to describe himself in withering terms: “a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop.” It’s not just a simple paean to one’s inamorata, but a gleeful blast of self-loathing that lends the emotion of the song far greater depth. The fact that the singer is a balloon about to pop makes the list of praises more understandable, or more psychologically tortured, or maybe both.

After the relaxed cadence of the verses, Porter raises the melody of the chorus ever higher, urging the singer to raise the volume ever higher as well. And by the time you get to the virtually one-note line “But if baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top!” it’s hard not to scream it out.

An early example of the list song, and probably the best one, Anything Goes audiences began demanding encores. Cole Porter began tossing off more verses to fill the encores for Ethel Merman, who introduced the song in the show,  to perform. At one point, Ethel had to wave her hands and tell the audience to stop asking her to go on. She screamed out, "There are no more lyrics!"

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ain't Nobody: The Case for Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan

Tell Me That You Like Me On his 1986 single “Higher Love,” Steve Winwood enlisted Chaka Khan to repeat the song's chorus on an extended coda. Winwood was generally considered one of the best of the British white blues singers, but asking Chaka to follow him was a terrible idea: She cleaned his clock, making him sound reedy and shallow with her effortless power. I used to sit through that whole song just waiting for Chaka to blow that skinny white boy away. Nobody upstages Chaka Khan.

Chaka Khan was just 33 at that point, but she was a veteran of the R&B wars, having assumed the lead vocalist spot with Rufus in 1972 at the tender age of 18. (She had already been in the Black Panthers by that point, and gotten married.) Her first chart success with the band was the classic “Tell Me Something Good,” written and produced by Stevie Wonder, from 1973, and almost from that moment on, there was talk of Chaka going solo. The nomination under consideration today is for “Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan,” but clearly we are intended to include her own body of work as well as Rufus (or Ask Rufus, as they were initially known, after the advice column in Mechanics Illustrated).

Khan held on with Rufus through nine albums and 13 Top Forty hits (there were also three non-Khan Rufus albums, all of which stiffed), culminating in the dazzling farewell single “Ain’t Nobody,” from 1983, which set the template for ‘80s dance records. She then immediately hit big with “I Feel for You,” written and produced by Prince, with a harmonica solo from her old benefactor Stevie Wonder and an introductory rap from Melle Mel. The personnel listing alone confirms Chaka Khan as R&B royalty.

Chaka wrote Rufus’ “Sweet Thing” with guitarist Tony Maiden, taking it to the Top Five in 1975, then sang on Quincy Jones' "I'll Be Good to You," in 1989. All in all, her hitmaking career spanned nearly 25 years, and all the hits are indelible, holding up very well.  

Let Me Rock You, That's All I Want to Do When I was compiling my framework for how to think about each vote, I realized that in a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, coolness is the paramount virtue. Nobody was cooler than Chaka Khan. Just think about that name, one of the great names in rock & roll: distinctive but not jokey, heavily rhythmic, exotic without being entirely foreign. These things matter. It’s not even completely made up, since the former Yvette Stevens adopted it upon marrying her first husband, bassist Hassan Khan.

Chaka Khan and Rufus have been on the ballot before, and fallen short; I don’t know if there will be another go-round for either. The time to vote for her is now. I vote yes for Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Sensual World: The Case of Kate Bush

Running Up That Hill Kate Bush is hugely respected by a lot of people I respect. Not only is her music sui generis, instantly identifiable as her own indefinable product, but from the beginning of her career, she was a one-woman gang, writing and producing (and playing piano on) her own material. She was the first woman ever to have a Number One hit in Britain with a song she wrote herself, with 1978's "Wuthering Heights," when she was just 19.

For a while it looked like she might be a star here in the U.S. of A., too. She was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live on December 9, 1978 (Eric Idle was the host), and though it took a while, she even had a Top Forty hit here, with "Running Up That Hill" in 1985.

But it wasn't to happen. Her second-highest charting single was the execrable "Don't Give Up," with Peter Gabriel. Kate Bush's impact on the U.S. record-buying public has been virtually nil.

That doesn't have to be a disqualifier, though. Leonard Cohen sold fewer records than Frankie Yankovic, but I still cheerfully voted for him, because of his influence on the larger music world and because his records are just so ridiculously good. I'm having a hard time seeing Kate Bush as qualifying on either accord.

I'd Make a Deal With God I think her records are well-written but overproduced, and her voice is kind of silly. She skirts the line between dramatic and pretentious, and it can be really tough to stay on the right side of that boundary. (In the video for "Wuthering Heights," at one point, she looks like she's speed-skating in a formal gown.) You can see why some people worship her, but I'm never gonna be one of those people.

I don't mean to be negative about her work, which can be very striking, and which never sounds like anyone other than Kate Bush. That's a very good thing. And when she lands just right, her music is quite beautiful.

But I just don't see her having a huge enough impact on the world of rock & roll, or even of American pop music (I'm not qualified to comment on British pop) to extend her a vote. In the end, I think Kate Bush is an easier artist to admire than to listen to. I vote no on Kate Bush.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Living in Synth: The Case of Depeche Mode

All I Ever Wanted Depeche Mode seems like they ought to be the epitome of something, being one of the most popular and certainly the most long-lived of the British synth-pop groups that emerged in the early 1980s. They were stars in England almost from their first release in 1980, although they didn’t break through in the U.S. until “People Are People” went to Number 13 in 1985. But “Just Can’t Get Enough” – which, let’s face it, is a much better song – had crashed the dance charts in 1981, off the band’s first album, Speak & Spell.

The primary songwriter on Speak & Spell was Vince Clarke, who wrote nine of its 11 songs, including “Just Can’t Get Enough,” but he left the band after that first record came out. “We basically just weren't getting on,” Clarke said later. "We were really young, and we did quite well very quickly, and it all became too much.” Starting with their second album, Martin Gore took over the songwriting, and he proved to be almost as good at it as Clarke. (Clarke, by the way, was born Vincent Martin, but changed his name because he was on the dole and would lose his benefits if the government knew he was making money via his band.)

Changing chief songwriters is as fraught a move as changing frontmen, and even moreso for a synth-pop group, where the material is pretty much the entire band. Pink Floyd changed primary songwriters and thrived, as did the Doobie Brothers, but it’s pretty rare for a band to succeed that way.

Depeche Mode only got bigger with Gore as its composer, although I don't think they ever got better. The band’s 1990 album Violator spawned three hit singles in the U.S., including “Enjoy the Silence,” their only Top Ten hit, and “Personal Jesus,” arguably their best post-Clarke song. They had Top Forty hits as late as 1997, and had a Number One hit on the U.S. dance charts as late as 2013 with “Heaven.”

That should have made them some kind of grizzled legend in the electronic-dance music world, but they never quite seemed to attain that status. Daft Punk has saluted artists ranging from Philip Glass to the Eagles as influences, but never, to my knowledge, Depeche Mode. Depeche were never as good as other 1980s dance titans like New Order or Pet Shop Boys, even though they outlasted those groups as hitmakers. 

Let’s Play Master and Servant Vince Clarke seems to be the sticking point here. It’s hard for me to support a band that lost its key member after one album, and was never as good again. After Clarke left Depeche Mode, he formed Yaz with Alison Moyet and released “Don’t Go” and “Situation,” both of which are better than anything in the Depeche catalog. Then he went on to form Erasure, which was a lot more fun than Depeche, especially with “A Little Respect.” And none of those groups was the best British dance-pop group of the 1980s; New Order was.

Depeche Mode blazed trails in EDM, arguably laying the groundwork for a genre that continues to be vital today. “Personal Jesus” is 26 years old and still sounds pretty fresh. They even established themselves as a must-see live act, which you wouldn’t expect from a synth-pop band. I like Depeche Mode; honestly, I do. I just don’t see what they’ve done to differentiate themselves from other bands of their ilk. New Order hasn’t even ever been nominated, for pity’s sake. I vote no on Depeche Mode.