Sunday, December 30, 2018

There's a Somebody I'm Longing to See

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century:
"Someone to Watch Over Me"
(George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, 1926)

It never fails to amaze me how young so many songwriters are when they create the works that have endured throughout the decades. George Gershwin composed and first performed “Rhapsody in Blue” when he was all of 25. After that landmark, George began teaming up with his older brother, lyricist Ira, to write Broadway shows, starting with Lady, Be Good, which was an instant hit in 1924, starring as it did Fred and Adele Astaire.

In 1926, the Gershwin brothers wrote Oh, Kay!, with its rapturous centerpiece, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The song was originally written as an uptempo rhythm number, until George played it at a slower pace, and the brothers immediately knew that’s how it was meant to be. It was sung onstage by Gertrude Lawrence as she held a Raggedy Ann doll, a gift from the composer.

What’s most striking about “Someone to Watch Over Me” is the gorgeous melody of its choruses, the gently falling phrases that fairly swoon as the tune proceeds. If I knew anything about music, I would explain this to you, but I have found an essay by a musicologist named Allen Forte that describes “the pentatonic scale that ascends from E flat1 to E flat2 to arrive on apex pitch F2 ([on the word] “longing”) and the slow, sequential descent, each bar of which presents a descending third.” It sounds simple the way Forte describes it, but if it were that simple, someone else would have done it, and only George Gershwin actually did it.

But Ira’s lyrics almost match his brother’s melody with their beauty. “Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed” is a lovely, unexpected turn. (When I first heard this song, I assumed that's the way people spoke in 1926, but they didn't.) “He may not be the man some/Girls think of as handsome” is even more spectacular, illustrating the old notion that men fall in love with women they find attractive, while women find attractive the men that they fall in love with. It's also a sly, somewhat self-deprecating commentary a la “My Funny Valentine,” plus a rhyme scheme worthy of Neil Diamond.

“Someone to Watch Over Me” was considered the standout song from Oh, Kay! right from the beginning. One source I’ve found says that Gertrude Lawrence’s original recording peaked at Number Two on the charts in early 1926, although it’s not clear to me which charts this refers to. George Gershwin’s own version made the same charts that year as well, as did an upbeat rendition by George Olsen and His Orchestra.

It became a jazz standard, being recorded by both Coleman Hawkins and Artie Shaw in 1945. In the 1950s the song was done by the real heavyweights of the American songbook, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, as well as Blossom Dearie in what has become the consensus best version of the song, which also gives me the opportunity to remind you once again that Blossom Dearie was indeed her real name. In more recent times, "Someone to Watch Over Me" has been covered by Willie Nelson, Amy Winehouse and Sting. Wait, Sting?

It's a good thing George Gershwin did all that composing at such a young age, because at the age of 38, he began suffering blinding headaches and hallucinations. He went to the hospital, which sent him home with a diagnosis of "likely hysteria." Three weeks later, he was dead from a brain tumor. Ira temporarily retired from lyric-writing for three years, before re-emerging to work with the likes of Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen. Ira died in 1986, 28 days before Amy Winehouse was born.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Ballot Roundup

Every year I embark on this project with every intention of writing up a well-researched, insightful essay on each of the nominees for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Every year I fall short of getting the full slate completed, and am happy if I am able to cough up one well-researched essay and another one that’s insightful.

Ballots were due today, and I assume the results will be announced tomorrow, which means there’s not much point in carrying on. But at least I got an entry done for each of the new nominees, which means that I have set forth my thoughts on all 15 candidates at some point over the past couple of years. For the ones who didn’t get new essays this year, here’s where you can find my thoughts, such as they are, on each of them:

Let’s wrap this up by making it like the Academy Awards, where they’ve stopped saying “The winner is…” and started saying “The Oscar goes to…” because there are no losers here, except possibly those dorks in Devo. This year, my choices for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame were:
  • The Cure
  • Janet Jackson
  • Kraftwerk
  • Radiohead
  • Rufus and Chaka Khan

  • Thanks for reading. See you next year, everybody.

    Todd Rundgren: We Can't Play This Game Anymore

    Todd Rundgren was always meant to be a producer. He knocked around in the Nazz as a very young man, releasing Nazz and Nazz Nazz on SGC Records but leaving the band at the age of 20. Dissatisfied with the production of the Nazz albums, he moved to New York and signed on with Albert Grossman as kind of a staff producer for his short-lived Ampex Records. He worked on some sessions with Janis Joplin for what became Pearl, then engineered the Band’s Stage Fright in 1970.  

    At that point, Rundgren emerged as one of the most important producers in rock. He helmed Badfinger’s classic Straight Up, from 1971, still just 23 years old. In 1973, he produced the New York Dolls self-titled debut and Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re an American Band, at opposite ends of the critical spectrum.

    In 1977, he handled Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, one of the most significant records of that year, although not necessarily in the good way, then produced the last Patti Smith Group album, Wave. His power-pop rep was well-suited for the New Wave acts that began coming up, like the Psychedelic Furs and XTC, whose Skylarking would soon be acclaimed as one of the best albums of the 1980s (and I’m not just saying that to get a retweet from JHB).

    But of course, there’s also the solo work. After leaving the Nazz (and while I usually see it referred to as "Nazz," I also see quotes where Rundgren calls it "the Nazz," so that's what I'm going with) Rundgren founded a band called Runt with future Tin Machiners Hunt and Tony Sales. He ended up being mostly a one-man band there, and their second album was called Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren. “We Gotta Get You a Woman” was on the first one, and reached Number 20 on the charts in 1970.

    Then came Something/Anything? in 1972, a true solo album with hits rolling off of it, including “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me,” a leftover from the Nazz days. Then the Rundgren train ran out of steam, with a series of albums getting more and more ignored aside from the 1978 Top 30 hit “Can We Still Be Friends.” He returned with a new band, Utopia, that had just enough success not to be forgotten completely. “Bang the Drum All Day,” from 1982’s The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect, ended up as the American “Rock & Roll Part II,” not even charting when it was first released but turning into an arena anthem.

    Rundgren keeps releasing albums, but none of them since Tortured Artist has even made the Billboard Hot 100.

    The Matched Set Chic had a nice run as a chart act, with four Top Ten hits from 1977 to 1979, but what really made their legacy was Nile Rodgers’ subsequent work as a producer. They’ve been nominated nearly a dozen times but have never been selected for the Hall of Fame.

    The Verdict I really like Todd Rundgren’s music a lot. The more I researched his case, the more I realized that his dossier is pretty thin. He’s put out an awful lot of music, but very little of it has made an impact. His producing career, on the other hand, is more impressive than I thought at first glance, but not enough to garner my vote. I vote No on Todd Rundgren.

    Saturday, December 8, 2018

    Roxy Music: There Is Nothing More Than This

    Bryan Ferry, one of the most sophisticated dudes in the history of rock & roll, was the son of a man who tended pit ponies, the small horses that worked in the coal mines of County Durham, in far northeastern England. He went to art school at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, then began teaching ceramics at a girls school in London. I found this description (from, I believe, Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera) of what happened next: “Bryan's association with both the girls and their school is unceremoniously terminated when it appears he is more interested in broadening their musical minds than expounding on the finer points of pottery.” “Broadening their musical minds,” heh heh.

    By this time he had begun associating with members of what would become Roxy Music. Ferry initially auditioned for King Crimson, who turned him down but helped him get a record deal for his fledgling band. Saxman Andy Mackay signed on, bringing with him a fellow named Brian Eno, who described himself as a “non-musician.” That is of course a very coy self-assessment, although bands have had other non-musicians in them, from Fred Schneider to Flavor Flav.

    What Eno really was, from the beginning, was a producer; on the first Roxy Music album, he treated Andy Mackay’s sax solo from “2HB” with tape effects, creating an ethereal sound like no other around at that time. He also played the synthesizer. Roxy’s first single, “Virginia Plain,” from 1972, is clearly a song written by Ferry, but produced by Eno – it would fit perfectly on Eno’s subsequent solo album Here Come the Warm Jets, with atonal squiggles crammed in every corner.

    I’m getting ahead of the story a bit here, but Eno left Roxy Music after their second album, For Your Pleasure, and embarked on one of the most innovative and strange careers in music. He composed the startup sound for Windows 95, which is the kind of thing that if you were Bill Gates, Eno would be your only choice to do that. He’s also known as the inventor of ambient music, but his more pop-oriented stuff is just astonishingly good. If you haven’t listened to Here Come the Warm Jets, you owe it to yourself.

    After Eno left Roxy Music, their sound become sleeker, more streamlined, almost appallingly sophisticated. I don’t quite understand why songs like “Dance Away” and “Over You” didn’t become U.S. hits, but their only chart success in America was “Love Is the Drug,” which went to Number 20 in 1975. They put many more singles on the charts in the U.K., where a cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” from 1981, was the only Number One hit.

    By the time of their eighth and final studio album, 1982’s Avalon, they were starting to get some notice on MTV, particularly with the gorgeous title track. Despite an oft-rumored reunion album, that would be the end of their output, and really, it’s just as well. They had pushed their brand of lush black-tie pop about as far as it was going to go, while going out on a high note: “Avalon” and “More Than This” were as good as anything they had recorded, and that was quite good indeed.

    The Matched Set Joy Division/New Order landed a series of singles near the top of the British charts while remaining more or less a rumor in the United States, but for the American kids whose lives they permeated, they were the real deal. New Order also had a lone Top Forty American hit, “True Faith” from 1987 – I don’t want to live in a world where “Bizarre Love Triangle” isn’t a hit, but here we bloody well are.

    Neither New Order nor Joy Division has ever been nominated.

    The Verdict Roxy Music was, I believe, the last act I cut from my ballot of five. This stuff holds up really well; it’s diverse, distinctive and debonair. “More Than This” should have been a huge hit in the U.S., but it wasn’t, and we have to deal with that. (It made the Top Forty for the post-Natalie Merchant 10,000 Maniacs, bizarrely enough.) Reluctantly, I vote No for Roxy Music.

    Tuesday, December 4, 2018

    John Prine: Make Me an Angel

    Like me, John Prine was born and raised in the middle-class suburbs of Chicago. Chicago had a big presence in the folk revival of the 1960s – Llewyn Davis going to the Gate of Horn was based on a real incident – and Prine got his start singing on open-mic nights at a club called the Fifth Peg. One night in 1970, when he opened with “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There,” Roger Ebert happened to be in the audience. Given those songs, Ebert’s review in the Sun-Times was obviously a rave, and Prine’s career was launched.

    John Prine was released in 1971, containing most of what people still know about John Prine: the above two songs plus “Angel From Montgomery” and “Illegal Smile.” Prine found himself at a party in New York City with Dylan shortly before the record was released, and when Prine sang some of it, Dylan sang along with him – he knew the album from a preview copy before it even came out. Hey, let’s listen to Dylan for a minute: 

    "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. 'Sam Stone,' featuring the wonderfully evocative line, 'There’s a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.' All that stuff about "Sam Stone," the soldier junkie daddy, and "Donald and Lydia," where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.”

    If he had had a couple more John Prines in him, he’d be up there with Dylan and Paul Simon among the absolute best contemporary songwriters. Although Prine continued to churn out great songs now and then over the next couple of decades – “Dear Abby,” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” the incredible “In Spite of Ourselves” – he never put out another record with four stone-cold classics. But who could? 

    With his tiny little voice, Prine never had what you might call hits – I’m not sure he ever had what you might call “singles.” But his songs very quickly began to get covered, like Bonnie Raitt with “Angel From Montgomery” in 1974. Hey, let’s listen to Bonnie for a minute:

    "I think 'Angel from Montgomery' probably has meant more to my fans and my body of work than any other song, and it will historically be considered one of the most important ones I've ever recorded. It's just such a tender way of expressing that sentiment of longing. It's a perfect expression from [a] wonderful genius.” 

    Johnny Cash covered “Sam Stone,” although he changed the unbelievably tough lyric "Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose" to "Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose.” The real keeper that you want here is Swamp Dogg’s cover.

    The Matched Set Prine’s friend Steve Goodman, who had hit it big when Arlo Guthrie did his “City of New Orleans,” brought Kris Kristofferson to hear Prine in Chicago one night. Kristofferson was so impressed he took Prine to New York to play an industry showcase at the Bitter End, which landed him a contract with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records. 

    Like Prine, Kristofferson was a brilliant songwriter, folding bleak imagery into proto-folkie songs, and although some of Kristofferson’s songs became genuine hits – “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night” – they are the same basic model, if “genius” can be considered a model. Prine’s a better singer than Kristofferson, but shoot, I’m a better singer than Kristofferson. Hey, let’s listen to Kristofferson:

    “People give me credit for ‘discovering’ John Prine. That’s like saying Columbus discovered America. It was already here.”

    Kristofferson’s never even been nominated. 

    The Verdict I have nothing bad to say about John Prine, but it’s really hard for me to see him elevated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a performer. For one thing, he’s not really rock & roll. Put him in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, absolutely, but for this ballot, I’m voting No.

    Monday, December 3, 2018

    The Cure: Show Me How You Do That Trick

    The Cure’s very first single, “Killing an Arab,” from 1979, sounds almost nothing like the florid danceable hits that they would make their bones on in the 1980s and 1990s. It's skeletal, consisting of nothing more than a skittering guitar, bass and drums. “Boys Don’t Cry,” the second single, boasted similar instrumentation, but was a big leap forward in terms of melody and riffage.

    Somebody just getting into the Cure around the time of Disintegration or "Friday I’m in Love" would probably not recognize these as songs from the same band, aside from the distinctive yawp of Robert Smith. A lot of bands make that kind of progression, of course, from raw to overproduced, but what’s great about the Cure is that those early singles are as great as the later hits. All the melodicism and atmosphere and weirdness and distinctive yawp were already present.

    The Cure didn’t do anything in America until “Let’s Go To Bed” got some MTV airplay in 1982, although it didn’t do more than bubble under on the Hot 100. But it took until Kiss me Kiss Me Kiss Me, in 1986 (the first CD I ever bought, by the way), for them to have a Top Forty album, and for “Just Like Heaven” to make the Top Forty – just barely sneaking in at Number Forty, but at least Casey Kasem announced it once. "Why Can't I Be You" and "Hot Hot Hot!" were almost as good.

    They finally had a genuine hit with “Lovesong,” a relatively weak number off Disintegration that went to Number Two in 1989. (I saw the Cure on that tour and remember how that was the song everyone sat down for.) Disintegration's first single, “Fascination Street,” with its lascivious bass intro, topped only the Modern Rock charts, but in the end the album was as jampacked with hit-worthy material as Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me had been. 

    “Friday I’m in Love” was their last Top Forty hit, in 1992. Generally, I place a lot of stock in how many hits a band has had, but so many of these Cure songs have entered the realm of classic rock – and what we now think of as, oxymoronically enough, alternative classic rock – that I’m going to cut them some slack. “Friday I’m in Love” became sort of the theme song for MTV’s 120 Minutes. Plus, they’re really good.

    I also love that the Cure put out “In Between Days,” a nicely melodic dance track from 1985 which was a modest hit, then decided they could do better than that, so they rewrote it as “Just Like Heaven,” putting that steam-powered (and incredibly lengthy) guitar riff on the front of it, and got a Top Forty hit out of it. Plus, the best dance song of the Eighties.

    The Matched Set The Kinks started out as a proto-punk band, evolved into a chamber-pop kind of thing, then emerged in the Seventies and Eighties as an arena rock band. Each sound was perfectly suited to its times, and was pulled off perfectly by the band. Is it blasphemous for me to compare a revered classic band with a bunch of New Wave twerps in face powder? I don’t know, but I’d rather listen to the Cure.

    The Verdict The Cure has been a trailblazing band in New Wave and Eighties dance music, and their stuff has held up very well, based as it has always been in such strong songwriting. They are the archetype of what became known as alternative rock. They’re a real band, too, with guitar solos and everything. What’s not to like? I vote Yes for the Cure.

    Saturday, December 1, 2018

    Janet Jackson: It's All for You

    I’ve written about Janet Jackson’s case for the Hall of Fame before, here and here, and there’s not a whole lot more to say about it. She’s had more hit singles than nearly everyone who’s already enshrined, and is an icon to many, many contemporary singers, not just women or people of color. So rather than go into that, I thought I’d tackle the question of whether Nipplegate really torpedoed her career, as the legend now has it.

    The incident in question took place on February 1, 2004, two months before the release of Damita Jo, Jackson’s eighth solo album. In the interim, CBS forbade Jackson to appear at the Grammys, where she had been scheduled to present an award. But Justin Timberlake, her partner in malfunction, was still allowed to appear, although he was the one who instigated the incident.

    Damita Jo sold just over a million copies in the U.S., although Jackson’s two previous albums had both sold over 3 million. None of its three singles even reached the Top Forty, despite the fact that she had had two Top Fives from her previous album, 2001’s All for You.

    That all looks pretty bad, but I’m not quite convinced. There’s a line on Wikipedia about the singles from Damita Jo being blackballed by pop radio, but the reference links to an article that doesn’t say anything of the sort. It can be hard to tell the difference between blacklisting and just not liking a record. Her subsequent two albums sold even more poorly than Damita Jo, suggesting that either her career had completely run out of steam, or the blackballing was more persistent than anyone cared to admit.

    More to the point, Miss Jackson had been placing songs in the Top Five for 20 years up to that time, and people don’t do that. Elvis didn’t do that, Stevie Wonder didn’t do that, Elton John didn’t do that (aside from his late-career Lion King and Princess Di flukes). Only a very small handful of acts have stayed on the charts significantly longer than 20 years. You don’t have to ask why someone didn’t continue to have hits after 20 years – you have to ask why they did.

    Jackson was only 37 at the time of Nipplegate, not particularly old for a pop star. She had been on the charts forever, but she was only 18 when Control came out. Nevertheless, I suspect she was nearing the end of her chart run anyway by the mid-aughts, bare breast or no. But really, that’s neither here nor there: Janet Jackson had done more than enough by Super Bowl XXXVIII to warrant induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

    The Matched Set Madonna is one of the few pop stars whose chart run lasted longer than Janet Jackson’s, although it was only by a few years. And of course, Madonna made a huge cultural impact, with way too many articles written about her containing the word “gaze.” 

    On the other hand, Nipplegate still pops up in the occasional discussion, while Madonna’s Sex book has been basically forgotten. (Maybe featuring Vanilla Ice in it was not such a hot idea.) When MTV chose its first MTV Icon, in 2001, the selection was not Madonna or Janet’s brother but Miss Jackson herself. And try though she might, Madonna's acting career has never launched a character as memorable as Penny on Good Times.

    So you have someone with 90 percent of the chart impact of Madonna, and maybe 80 percent of the zeitgeist impact. Yet Madonna sails in on the first ballot, while Janet Jackson has lingered outside for years.

    The Verdict An obvious Yes. Janet Jackson is overqualified for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.