Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Pat Benatar: Another Notch in Her Lipstick Case

When Pat Benatar first came on the scene in the late 1970s, it was common for her to be described as “classically trained.” She certainly had a big voice, but I suspect this was more marketing gimmick than truism; her higher education consisted of one year at SUNY Stony Brook, studying health education.

Benatar sang in nightclubs, stage musicals and commercials for several years before releasing her first album, In the Heat of the Night, at the relatively advanced age (for a pop starlet) of 26 in 1979. The second single, “Heartbreaker,” was a MOR hit, and Pat Benatar has been a star ever since.

What Makes Her Different There weren’t a lot of women singing hard rock in the late 1970s and 1980s, but Benatar seemed to wear the responsibility easily. "For every day since I was old enough to think, I've considered myself a feminist," she said. "It's empowering to watch and to know that, perhaps in some way, I made the hard path we have to walk just a little bit easier."

The Hall of Fame should recognize more women, but my first response to Benatar is: Where are the Go-Go’s? They were hitmakers from the same era who arguably had a larger cultural impact (plus they wrote their own songs). The Go-Go’s had a jukebox musical on Broadway, Head Over Heels, which is an honor that seems unlikely to befall Pat Benatar. There’s even a Go-Go’s documentary film that will be at Sundance next month. Where’s your documentary, Pat?

"You Better Run" was the second video ever shown on MTV, after "Video Killed the Radio Star."

“Pat Benatar” the act is really Pat Benatar the band, since she has been with guitarist/songwriter/producer Neil Giraldo since her very first album. They’ve also been together in real life as a married couple since 1982, and that’s kinda sweet, isn’t it?

The turn of the decade from the 1970s into the 1980s was not a very auspicious time for pop metal, as anyone who has listened to Survivor or Asia lately can attest to. With their full-throated vocals and knotty guitar parts, Benatar’s early hits still sound pretty fresh, especially “Heartbreaker” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

By the Numbers Six triple platinum albums, including the Number One Precious Time, 15 Top Forty hits, including four Top Tens ("Hit Me With Your Best Shot," "Love Is a Battlefield," "We Belong," "Invincible")

Will She Get In? I mean, the Go-Go's were the first all-female band to make a real splash on the charts, and those songs still sound great. They snuck some surf-punk into pop melodies and harmonies - oh yeah, Pat Benatar. The Rock Hall has inducted an awful lot of people from Pat's era and genre, so I assume they'll do the same here.

Should She Get In? Probably, but this is only her first nomination. I think I'll wait for a different year, and for the moment, vote NO for Pat Benatar.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Whitney Houston: Learning to Love Yourself

I can remember, in the autumn of 1985, hearing a swooningly romantic song on the radio called "Saving All My Love for You," which swung without losing any of its yearning, and erupted into lust at the end. It was by a fresh young singer named Whitney Houston - her first hit, the relatively generic "You Give Good Love," had escaped my notice - who was clearly headed for a substantial career.

Her string of hit singles may not have lived up to the promise of her voice, but her hitmaking career was long and fertile, and that voice was always a wonder.

What Makes Her Different Whitney Houston simply had one of the greatest voices anyone had ever heard. "When I first heard her," Tony Bennett said, "I called Clive Davis and said, 'You finally found the greatest singer I've ever heard in my life.'"

Whitney opened her Number One cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" with 45 seconds of pure a cappella vocalizing. "I will always be grateful and in awe of the wonderful performance she did on my song," Dolly said. That single stayed at Number One for 14 weeks.

Whitney had a knack for encapsulating a moment. Her "One Moment in Time" became the theme song for the 1988 Olympics (and was yet another Top Ten hit). In 2001, she went to the Top Ten with the freaking "Star-Spangled Banner."

With all her personal and drug issues, you might have expected Whitney to become a waiflike, self-pitying Judy Garland figure, but her vocal performances never stopped projecting toughness. "Learning to love yourself," from "Greatest Love of All," appears to be a lesson she could never fully accept, but she sure could sell it.

By the Numbers According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Whitney was the most awarded female musical artist of all time, with two Emmy Awards, six Grammy Awards, 30 Billboard Music Awards, and 22 American Music Awards, for a total of 415 career awards.

She had 31 Top Forty hits, an amazing 24 of which reached the Top Ten. She had ten Number Ones, and let's name them:

  • Saving All My Love for You
  • How Will I Know
  • Greatest Love of All
  • I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)
  • Didn't We Almost Have It All
  • So Emotional
  • Where Do Broken Hearts Go
  • I'm Your Baby Tonight
  • All the Man That I Need
  • I Will Always Love You
  • Exhale (Shoop Shoop)


Will She Go In? The only question about Whitney is whether she is "rock & roll" enough for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She is arguably less rock & roll than Janet Jackson, who is more of an R&B singer. But hey, they put Joan Baez in, and Joan didn't have ten Number One hits.

Should She Go In? C'mon, it's Whitney Houston. I vote YES.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Thin Lizzy: Them Wild-Eyed Boys

As seen in the hit movie Once, there's a statue of Phil Lynott, the mastermind behind Thin Lizzy, in downtown Dublin. I've heard Lynott described as the Irish Bruce Springsteen, as he spun out a string of hits in Ireland and personified that underdog Irish attitude.

For me, Lynott and Thin Lizzy are more like Status Quo, best known here in the States for the 1969 hit "Pictures of Matchstick Men." In their home nation of the United Kingdom, Status Quo stayed on the charts into the 1990s. If we were voting for the British Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Status Quo would already be in, and if we were voting for the Irish Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Thin Lizzy would be an easy yes. But we're not.

What Makes Them Different Phil Lynott's mother was a Dubliner, and his father was from British Guiana, allowing him to epitomize the postmodern Irish mutt. Lynott played bass and sang, and eventually enlisted two guitarists to support him in Thin Lizzy. That twin-guitar attack went on to be pretty influential, but it's not like they invented it, going back at least to "And Your Bird Can Sing."

That was the lineup that concocted "The Boys Are Back in Town," which went to No. 12 in the States in 1976 and has never really gone away. Rolling Stone put it at 499 on its list of the Greatest Singles of All Time, one spot ahead of "More Than a Feeling."

Thin Lizzy broke up in 1983, and Lynott died in 1986, of various diseases brought on by years of drug abuse. He was 36. The inevitable sporadic reunion tours and albums started up in 1996.

The BusBoys, an African-American rock & roll band from L.A., had an MTV hit in 1982 with their own song called "The Boys Are Back in Town," from the movie 48 HRS. I'm not sure what to make of that.

By the Numbers "The Boys Are Back in Town" was Thin Lizzy's only Top Forty hit in the U.S., but it's been heard in more than 20 movies and TV shows, including the Aubrey Plaza starrer Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. In their native Ireland, the band had seven Top Ten hits, with both "Boys" and "Whiskey in the Jar" going to Number One.

Will They Get In? Irish voters would definitely elect them. I don't think American voters will, but people sure do love "The Boys Are Back in Town."

Should They Get In? Let's face it: Thin Lizzy's American legacy consists of one song. It's a great song, but still. Hanson and the New Radicals and Beverly Bremer each recorded one great song, too. I vote NO for Thin Lizzy.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Judas Priest: This Is Spinal Tap


You guys know that Judas Priest was widely considered a joke, right? I mean, you don’t need me to tell you this, but when Beavis was singing “Breakin’ the LAW, breakin’ the LAW,” that was a Judas Priest song. That’s who the band was thought to appeal to: degenerate Arizona high-school truants.

Somebody must have liked them, because the Priest was allowed to release a dozen albums by the time Beavis and Butt-Head rolled around. Then in 1998 lead singer Rob Halford, a pioneer of the leather-and-studs look, came out, and rendered the entire band’s career retroactively more deserving of attention. Unfortunately, it didn’t make their music any better.

What Makes Them Different: Obviously, Halford’s sexuality is the most culturally impactful thing about the band at this point, and I don’t mean to downplay that. The band always had a streak of barely contained violence about it – their 1978 album Killing Machine was renamed Hell Bent for Leather in the U.S., which I suppose is a little better – which becomes much more interesting when you know the songs are being sung by a closeted gay man.

That violent streak got them noticed by Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Research Center in the mid-1980s, notably for the lyric “I’m gonna force you at gunpoint to eat me alive.” “In a uniquely British way,” guitarist K.K. Downing later explained, “Rob’s S&M lyrics were intended to be tongue in cheek.”

When he was preparing to make This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner went to a Judas Priest concert as part of his research.

By the Numbers: Four platinum albums, although they never had a Top Ten album in the U.S. until the inevitable sporadic reunion albums started coming out in the last few years. No Top Forty hits; the Priest’s biggest single, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” peaked at Number Four on the U.S. Mainstream Rock charts in 1981.

Will They Go In? This is the Priest’s second nomination, but if they didn’t get in the first time, I don’t know what’s going to be different this time. If you like 1970s-style metal, there are better choices on the ballot.

Should They Go In? Judas Priest is extremely not my cup of tea, but even given that, I don’t see the case here. Being a poor man’s Black Sabbath is not something to write home about. Ordinarily, my top priority for a band is their cultural influence, and Halford has certainly made their career – and the fans they drew in through the late 1970s and 1980s -  more fascinating to think about. But he hasn’t made the music fun to listen to. If Judas Priest gets in, the door is wide open for Uriah Heep. I vote NO.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Soundgarden: In Disguises No One Knows


Soundgarden was arguably the first of the Seattle grunge bands that emerged into national prominence the early 1990s. The late Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil, the core members, were making music together as early as 1984, and put out their first recordings in 1986. They will be forever compared - unfavorably - to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but they predated both those bands. They were also the most metal-ish of the major grunge bands, once touring as the opening act for Skid Row.

Like most things grunge, Soundgarden didn’t show a lot of staying power. Their heyday consisted of five studio albums before the band combusted in 1997. Cornell, weirdly, blamed the fans: “You feel like fans have paid their money and they expect you to come out and play them your songs like the first time you ever played them,” he said. “That's the point where we hate touring.” As with every band ever, they did regroup for the inevitable sporadic reunion albums and tours, before disbanding for good following Cornell’s death in 2017.

What Makes Them Different: Soundgarden’s music was melodic enough that my son’s high school marching band once interpolated part of “Black Hole Sun” into their halftime show. Given that, it’s a little surprising that they didn’t have more success on the pop charts, but “Black Hole Sun” didn’t even make the Hot 100, although it was a No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart and No. 2 on the Alternative charts.

There’s a wonderful anecdote in Mark Yarm’s book Everybody Loves Our Town where Cornell talks about Susan Silver, who would later become his wife but who was at the time managing several of the bands on the Seattle scene. The guys in Soundgarden were acting like regular rock & roll louts, peeing against a wall in some rock club, when Silver admonished them that someone very much like the boys’ mother was eventually going to have to clean that up, so they should cut that right out. I read this a long time ago, so if I have some details wrong, please correct me, but this struck me as the grunge version of the famed Motown charm school. That should have been their motto: Soundgarden – we won’t pee on the wall.

At first, the band was a real Rainbow Coalition: Thayil’s parents both emigrated from India, and original bassist Hiro Yamamoto was Japanese-American. Cornell was mostly a boring white guy, but at least he was half-Jewish.

By the Numbers: Three platinum albums, six Number One hits on the U.S. Alternative rock charts, two Grammys (for “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun”)

Will They Go In? Without the cultural impact of Nirvana or the staying power of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden will always be a distant third in the grunge sweepstakes. I’m guessing they don’t go in, at least not yet.

Should They Go In? Their moment passed very quickly, and I haven’t felt a lot of reverberations from their legacy. They wouldn’t lower the standards of the Hall, but for the moment, I’m voting NO on Soundgarden.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Doobie Brothers: Ain't Got No Worries, Cuz I Ain't In No Hurry


Come on, admit it: You thought the Doobie Brothers were already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How could Chicago and the Steve Miller Band be in there and not the Doobies? Their own brand of 70s pop/classic rock has survived as strongly as those other bands, not to mention that of nonentities like Deep Purple and Kiss.

But the Doobies haven’t even been nominated before this year, which seems more like an oversight than anything else, not because they were so innovative or memorable but because they belong to a genre and generation that has been overly rewarded by the R&R HoF. So here, at last, they are.

What Makes Them Different: Maybe one reason the Doobies haven’t been recognized till now is that they were really two different bands, turning their personnel (and sound) almost entirely over between 1971’s Doobie Brothers, with its NorCal choogling boogie, and the yacht rock of 1980’s Minute by Minute (their last real album before the inevitable sporadic reunion records).  Ponytailed guitarist Patrick Simmons was the only connective tissue between the two. There aren’t a lot of bands that can survive turning over their frontman and lead songwriter, but the Doobies actually got stronger, at least in terms of the pop charts, when Michael McDonald took the helm.

McDonald, by the way, initially joined the band as a temporary touring member when original lead singer Tom Johnston took sick with an ulcer. McDonald was recommended by guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, who had worked with him in Steely Dan. Baxter, of course, is the former chair of the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense.

The most singular record in the Doobies’ career is Simmons’ “Black Water,” which went to Number One in 1974. With its use of wind chimes and viola as lead instruments, and an a cappellla bridge that producer Ted Templeman later claimed he stole from his old vocal group Harper’s Bizarre, “Black Water” didn’t sound like anything else on the radio in 1974. It still doesn't sound like anything else on the radio. The Doobies really didn’t know what to do with it: “Black Water” initially surfaced as the B-side to the lead single from What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits; after the album seemed to have stiffed, “Black Water” was the third single released, and the Doobies had their first Number One hit.

By the Numbers: Six platinum studio albums, including one Number One (Minute by Minute); 16 Top Forty hits, five top Tens, including two number Ones (“Black Water,”  “What a Fool Believes”)

Will They Get In? This is maybe the biggest no-brainer on the ballot. The Hall of Fame has been exceptionally kind to bands like the Doobie Brothers.

Should They Get In? Not a lot of bands encapsulate two little eras of rock music, but the Doobies were one of the best of the post-hippie bands of the early 1970s and one of the best of the yacht rock acts of the late 1970s. And “Black Water” still sounds like magic. What the heck, I’m in a good mood: I’ll vote YES for the Doobie Brothers.



Monday, February 18, 2019

Crazy for Trying

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century
"Crazy" (Willie Nelson, 1961)

On June 14, 1961, just as her single “I Fall to Pieces” was slowly climbing the charts, Patsy Cline and her brother Sam were in a car accident in Nashville. The impact threw Cline into the windshield, nearly killing her. When help arrived, Patsy insisted that the other car's driver be treated first, but ended up instead watching the other driver die. Cline spent a month in the hospital, with a broken wrist and dislocated hip, as well as a somewhat disfiguring cut across her forehead that required stitches.

But she had to go back to work.  On August 17, Cline stood on crutches and tried to negotiate a new song, “Crazy,” by Willie Nelson. Nelson had just moved to Nashville in 1960, but had already landed “Hello Walls” with Faron Young and “Night Life” with Ray Price. He had written those songs, as well as “Crazy,” in one two-week writing binge while he was still living in Houston.

Nelson had offered “Crazy” to a country singer named Billy Walker, who turned it down as too much of a “girl’s song.” Patsy’s husband, Charlie Dick, heard some of Willie’s songs on a jukebox, then requested a batch of Nelson's demos from his publishing company. He was excited enough about "Crazy" to get it to Patsy.

She hadn’t even head the song before the recording session, and hated it at first. “I had problems immediately with my song ‘Crazy’ because it had four or five chords in it,” Nelson later said. “Not that ‘Crazy’ is real complicated; it just wasn’t your basic three-chord country hillbilly song.”

Patsy also had a hard time reaching the high notes with her injured ribs. She spent four hours on “Crazy” that evening, and still wasn’t satisfied with it, although producer Owen Bradley saved the instrumental track they recorded that night. Patsy came back when her ribs were feeling better and nailed the vocal in one take.

“Crazy” became Patsy Cline’s biggest-ever pop hit, her only Top Ten there, although it stalled at Number Two on the country charts towards the end of 1961. “All my recent hits have come true in my life,” Cline said. “I had a hit out called 'Tra-La-La Triangle,' and people thought about me and Gerald and Charlie. I had another hit out called 'I Fall to Pieces,' and I was in a car wreck. Now I'm really worried because I have a new hit single out, and it's called 'Crazy'.”

Well, she didn’t go crazy, but she did die in a plane crash less than two years after the song’s release. Patsy Cline was 30 years old.

Nelson released his own version on his 1962 debut album, …And Then I Wrote, which really should have had the ellipsis on the other end. Linda Ronstadt’s version went to the Top Ten on the country charts in 1977, although it never made the pop charts. LeAnn Rimes cut it in 1999, and Julio Iglesias, Dottie West, and even Chaka Khan have put out their own versions. Chaka turns it into a jazz tune, and kills it, as you would expect.

The weirdest turn in the “Crazy” saga came when Ross Perot adopted it as his presidential campaign theme song in 1992. ''There are millions of 'crazy' people in this country,'' he said the day before the election. ''And I bet tomorrow will be a crazy day at the polls.'' It wasn’t, really. For most people, using “Crazy” as an election theme song would have been political suicide, but for Perot, it just reinforced his brand.

Willie says that Patsy Cline's version of "Crazy" is his favorite rendition of any of his songs. Here's Patsy:

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Spirits Rise and Their Dance Is Unrehearsed

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century
"Evergreen" (Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams, 1976)

Early on in the version of A Star Is Born that was uploaded to Netflix a few months ago, there's a scene in which Barbra Streisand shows a song to Kris Kristofferson, playing the rock star who has stumbled into Streisand's small-time nightclub act the night before. Streisand explains that she hasn't written words for it yet, but picks out the chords on an acoustic guitar as she signs the wordless melody. It's gorgeous, of course; it's "Evergreen."

When I watched this scene, there were a few things I didn't know about it. (It was the first time I had seen any of the iterations of A Star Is Born.) First of all, I didn't know that it had been cut from the theatrical release and had been restored for the Netflix version in what you might call the director's cut, if we're willing to admit that Streisand has always been the real director for all her pictures. 


“I can’t believe that I, as the person who had final cut of that movie, cut myself out of that scene because I was just looking at the pace," Streisand later said. "I didn’t realize what I was cutting out until much later." 


What I also didn't realize is that the scene was autobiographical. Streisand herself composed the music to the song, then went to Paul Williams, who was writing all the other music for the film, to help with the lyrics. 

"The first thing she did, she said, 'Can you use this?'" Williams said. "She picked up a guitar and I said, 'Oh my God, it's beautiful.' She was like a little kid. It's a side of her I'd never seen before. She was like, 'You really like it?' I said, 'Like it? It's our love theme.'" 


Williams wrote the lyrics in a day. "The only thing that the finished song had that was different from the way it is now is the first two lines were switched," he said. "I wrote 'Love, fresh as the morning air/ Love, soft as an easy chair.' That 'easy' doesn't sing good. I called her up, and said, 'How's that?' She said, 'Fine.' Click. I thought, 'You do go on, don't you?'" Those lyrics are awfully good:


Spirits rise and their dance is unrehearsed

They warm and excite us
Cuz we have the brightest
Love

In the version of A Star Is Born that was released in 1976, "Evergreen" is finally seen onscreen when Streisand and Kristofferson sing it together in the studio, as their love affair has blossomed, and Streisand's joy in the singing of it, in the moment of them uniting, is palpable. "When I do sing the song with a lyric and it’s with Kris, the lyric is about him now," Streisand said later. "It adds more depth to their love affair.” 

Streisand insisted on singing it live in the studio, to present the most natural possible version of it. Kristofferson, who you would think would be more a of professional musician, was reluctant to perform it live. Frankly, he comes across as a bad singer, and kind of a pain in the ass. Nevertheless, it's a tremendous performance:




So the biggest question about this song is: Barbra Streisand wrote it? Really? I've seen speculation like this dismissed as sexism, which may be part of it, but more than that I think it's because Streisand hardly wrote any other songs. Throughout the 1970s, she would occasionally get a co-writing credit or two on her solo albums - but the one song anyone is aware of her writing is this gem? A song so good some people (i.e., yours truly) call it one of the Greatest Songs of the 20th Century? That seems far-fetched, but there's no evidence to the contrary that I can see.


I am reluctant to include any songs in this series that haven't been recorded, and ideally made into hits, by multiple artists. Although "Evergreen" has become a signature song for Streisand, it has been covered by lots of people, including Johnny Mathis, Luther Vandross, and Broadway's Marin Mazzie. I have heard an unreleased rendition by none other than the Chairman, Frank Sinatra, but his voice cracked on the last chorus, and he apparently never made another attempt at it.


One reason I like to hear multiple version of a song before I anoint it is so that I can be sure it's the song whose excellence I'm hearing, not just the performance. If "Evergreen" falls short of that standard, well, go make your own list. 

But really, no one is ever going to own this song besides Barbra Streisand. Wish she would write more.