226: The Byrds, ‘Eight Miles High’ (RCA Version)

Posted by jeff on Oct 16, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

The Birds 1965 L to R: Hillman, Crosby, Clarke, McGuinn, Clark

The Byrds – ‘Eight Miles High’ (RCA Version)
The Byrds – ‘Eight Miles High’ (Official Columbia Version)

You can’t overstate the importance or achievement of the early Byrds (not the Miami Beach diners, the LA band). Going way out on a limb (Byrds can do that), there are strong arguments that they:

  • Invented both folk rock and psychedelic rock
  • Catalyzed the hippie counter-culture
  • Were the first American rock band (as opposed to rock and roll, i.e. post-Beatles).
  • Introduced and legitimized Dylan into the world of rock
  • Made some of the best music of popular music’s finest hour, music that still shines 50 years on.

To no small degree, it was their version of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ that shattered the Rock/Folk dichotomy. Prior to it—never the twain shall meet. After it—the floodgates opened. Folk-rock marked the crazed coupling of Beatle hormones intertwined with Dylan gravitas.

The Byrds and Dylan

The Byrds and Dylan

Dylan’s “Another Side of” (August 1964) reached #43. “Bringing It All Back Home” (March 1965) reached #6. It’s hard to grasp today that the album did that well despite the fact that it had virtually no air play. Album-oriented rock FM radio did not come into being until the end of the decade. Until then, it was all about the Top 40. The new music had nowhere to be heard – that’s why they called it ‘underground radio’ in its nascent period. ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, Dylan’s first single to chart, only made it to #39.

In marked contrast, The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (June 1965) and their cover of Pete Seeger’s cover of Kohelet ben David (Ecclesiastes) ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ (October 1965) both hit #1.

The Jet Set, 1964 L to R: Crosby, Clark, McGuinn

The Jet Set, 1964
L to R: Crosby, Clark, McGuinn

So circa 1965, the folk scene was just beginning to lose steam. Dylan was booed at Newport. The Beatles were at the apex of their initial mania period (“Help” July 1965), the British invasion had captured AM radio.

In LA in 1964, three bona fide folk musicians – Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, Gene Clark and Dave Crosby – formed The Jet Set, playing acoustic Beatle covers alongside the droning olde Irish ballads. They liked the direction, so they bought electric guitars (including a 12-string Rickenbacker for McGuinn), added a Brian Jones lookalike drummer (Mike Clarke) and an ex-bluegrass mandolinist as bassist (Chris Hillman), and started rehearsing.

Columbia signed them, and their management got them a tape of a new, unreleased Dylan song. But by the time their first studio session was scheduled, they hadn’t yet mastered their instruments, so The Wrecking Crew was brought in to lay down the instrumentals together with McGuinn, who did do the vocals together with Clark and Crosby.

TheByrdsEightMilesHighTheir first two albums hit #6 and #17 respectively, spurred by their two #1 hits and a series of lesser hits (especially ‘All I Really Want to Do’). Columbia and the American public, eager for a homegrown group to rival all those Brits, made them into teen idols (see ‘So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star’). McGuinn’s square specs, Crosby’s outlandish capes and hats, and their general stoned aloof demeanor, cultivated their pop star status.

Many maintain that the crowds gathered at Ciro’s in LA to see the Byrds perform “represented the first stirrings of the West Coast hippie counterculture”.

I have less enthusiasm for The Byrds’ first two albums than most rock critics. I find the material (Dylan and other folk covers, as well as a smattering of Clark-penned originals) pretty bland, to tell the truth. Columbia promoted ‘Another Side of’ with the slogan “Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan”, but the public was unconvinced. They weren’t ready for that voice unless it was sugar-coated by PP&M, Joanie B, then The Byrds.

The Byrds

The Byrds

Me? I was 17. I struggled with Dylan. I understood that something was happening there, but I didn’t know (exactly) what it was. But I certainly didn’t need the watered-down versions to explain it. You tell me, would you have listened to Dylan’s ‘All I Really Want to Do’ or The Byrd’s?

Still, they were a force. They could indeed make some fine Amirkin Beatlish music, like ‘Feel a Whole Lot Better’, and yeah, the vocals were pretty darned cool.

In November they toured the US, listening to their new discoveries, John Coltrane (“Impressions” and “Afro Blue Impressions”) and Ravi Shankar. Coltrane was pioneering his ‘sheets of sound’, wild high-speed arpeggios of fluid, ‘vertical’ music. Listen to Coltrane’s ‘India’, the first cut from “Impressions”. The influence couldn’t be clearer.

The Birds

The Birds

Ravi Shankar was soon to become the darling of the hippies, the mentor for George Harrison’s sitar experiments, star of Woodstock, the guru of the East. A decade later he would later father Norah Jones, no small contribution to the world in itself.

In August 1965, The Byrds migrated to England, the first American group to cheep back at the music the Beatles were making. The tour was hyper-hyped; the press panned them, and despite the warm personal welcome they received from The Beatles and The Stones, they were 21-year olds stoned out of their minds, overwhelmed by the noise and the adulation.

Returning to the US from after England, they experienced an epiphanous flight, seven miles high –a pun on the drugs. McGuinn: “The Beatles had a song called Eight Days a Week, so we changed it to Eight Miles High because we thought that would be cooler.”

The Byrds and The Birds

The Byrds and The Birds

In November, somehow the song “Eight Miles High” was composed, credited to Clark/McGuinn/Crosby. Gene Clark said it was almost entirely his composition. McGuinn says the song was mostly his and Crosby’s. Crosby said, “I thought it was Gene’s idea to write a song about our trip to London – he was a wonderful, talented man. But if Roger says it was his idea, maybe it was.”

Here are McGuinn’s and Crosby’s accounts of the making of the song. Gene Clark: “It was about a lot of things. It was about the airplane trip to England, it was about drugs, it was about all that. A piece of poetry of that nature is not limited to having it have to be just about airplanes or having it have to be just about drugs. It was inclusive because during those days the new experimenting with all the drugs was a very vogue thing to do.”

Shooting Byrds

Shooting Byrds

But the Byrds couldn’t get those Coltrane and Shankar sounds out of their ears, and the arrangement seems to have been a group effort.

On December 22, 1965, The Byrds snuck down the street to the RCA studio where their friends Jefferson Airplane had been recording to record ‘Eight Miles High’.  They wanted to release it, but the Columbia suits insisted on a recording done in their studio. Both McGuinn and Crosby have expressed their preference for the original recording. Crosby: “It was a stunner, it was better, it was stronger. It had more flow to it. It was the way we wanted it to be.”

It was released in March, 1966, long (3’33”) and weird. Six weeks later, an industry report alleged that it was a drug song, resulting in a ban from airplay on many AM stations. Still, it reached #14 on the Billboard chart, The Byrds’ first great song, their last Top 20 hit.

the-byrdsIt is widely credited with being the first psychedelic rock song, catalyzing a mindset and soundtrack that would accompany us through Woodstock, Altamont, and the Vietnam debacle. If you want some perspective on just how innovative the song was, it was preceded by ‘We Can Work It Out’, ‘Daytripper’ and ‘Nowhere Man’, and followed by ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’ (the Beatles’ first ‘other’ song). The Byrds beat them to the punch. A British music magazine stated at the time that “Paul [McCartney] admitted recently that the Liverpool foursome are working on a similar sound for their new album and single.”

Eight Miles High’ is not only a groundbreaking song. It is also a great song. The lyrics are indeed haunting, psychedelia at its very finest. The melody is a riveting amalgam of traditional folk chord progressions with Eastern drone. The vocals—well, David Crosby is the finest harmony singer in rock, McGuinn and Clark no slouches – are a shimmering sheen of peach-cheeked choirboys (who have just snuck behind the altar to drop acid).

The+ByrdsThe angelic, mellifluous harmonies contrast with the raucous, grating instrumental track. (here’s the Columbia instrumental track isolated). Hillman’s thrusting bass launches the flight. For my money, he’s in the absolute top echelon of rock bassists. Clarke propels it to liftoff (hey, he was listening to Elvin Jones). I still remember how he knocked me out in concert (and I had seen all the biggies). Crosby’s jagged, punching, ballsy rhythm guitar (inspired by McCoy Tyner’s rhythm piano?) provides the off-the-beat edginess. And of course McGuinn’s Rickenbacker, heavily compressed to produce a bright and sustained wall of overtones. Oh, how he jangles.

The juxtaposition of the grave, melodious vocals; the muscular, brilliant high-octane rhythm section; and the feverish, hallucinatory lead guitar–unlike anything heard before – together comprise one of rock’s masterpieces.

tumblr_ndp4xioF2Q1rrwazho1_400Time has dealt kindly with ‘Eight Miles High’. It’s been elected to the Grammy Hall of Fame, and is #151 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. There are oodles of articles about the song; and a flock of cover versions, including ones by various Phoenix-like reincarnations of previous Byrds, and solo efforts by both McGuinn and Crosby. Most are pretty embarrassing, the worst being by McGuinn and Gene Clark where they sing in unison! Out of all those harmonic options, unison?

I’ve always found McGuinn an annoying persona, despite his talent, and have refrained from following his music over the years. I did listen to a sampling now, with my reservations justified. But I did come across one acoustic version of his from 2006 which really knocked me out. He was (is) indeed an exceptional guitarist. Especially interesting for me is how prominent the folk roots of the song are in this treatment.

Immediately following the release of the single, Gene Clark left the band. They went on to record around it a mixed but fine album, “Fifth Dimension”, and then their masterpieces “Younger Than Yesterday” and “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” before Crosby left the band, McGuinn changed his name, and dressed the Byrds in a different feather.

But the early version of his band, even before they reached the zenith of their flight, (at the risk of hyperbole) invented folk-rock, invented psychedelic rock, and introduced both Eastern and avant garde jazz to mainstream rock. No small feats, those. The early Byrds indeed got the worm.

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224: Bob Dylan, ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’

Posted by jeff on Oct 2, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

Farmers_Daughter_comicBob Dylan, ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’

Spoiler alert! This post assumes that you’ve seen “Psycho” and remember the plot. If not, do yourself a giant favor—stop reading, and go watch the movie. It will stay with you for as long as you live.

Have you heard the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter?

Have you ever thought about what happens when a brilliant, brash, young overthetop songwriter amalgamates a corny old dirty joke with the cinematic masterpiece of our deepest insecurities?

The Traveling Salesman and the Farmer’s Daughter

The farmer’s daughter is a stock character in a template of dirty jokes in which the salesman’s car breaks down on a country road (on a rainy night, obviously). He knocks at the nearest farmhouse asking for shelter. The farmer agrees to house him, on the condition that he not go near his luscious, innocent daughter. Later that night…, and then comes the specific Farmer’s Daughter Joke. It usually includes the beast of two backs, dénouement, and a hurried getaway accompanied by a lot of shouting and a shotgun.


Psycho” is too often misremembered today as an ‘old horror movie’, whereas in fact it is a most profound work of art expressing our deepest fears and anxieties, the same seam mined by Franz Kafka. It was the most profitable black-and-white sound film ever made, and the most profitable in the career of Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).

Many of its scenes, setups, even frames, have become indelible in our collective minds. The graphically half-dressed Janet Leigh cavorting with her boyfriend, shocking for 1960 moviegoers (AH: “I wanted to give a visual impression of despair and solitude in that scene.”). Martin Balsam climbing the stairs (I’m guessing this scene is the origin of what has become a cliché.) Our rooting for the car with the detective’s body to sink all the way into the swamp. (AH: “I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ.”)

psychoAnd of course, the shower scene. No one who has seen the movie can take a shower in a hotel room without the scene flitting through the back of his/her mind. It is so memorable because it’s shocking in so many ways. We think we’re watching a story about whether Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) will get away with her theft or not. Female leads don’t get killed a third of the way into the movie. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is an awkward, likeable young man. (AH: “The killing is pretty much like a rape.”) The scene is absolutely unexpected, horrifyingly graphic without penetration (of the knife). The details occur in our mind. The violins, the blood going down the drain. To the end of her life, Janet Leigh always took baths.

psycho8The quotes from Hitch, by the way, are from the book “Hitchcock” by Francois Truffaut, a series of interviews by one great critic/director with The Master, covering his entire oeuvre. It’s one of my favorite books in the whole world.

Another Side of Bob Dylan

In February, 1964, Dylan was a phenomenon that neither the suits nor the audience quite knew what to make of. He was the poet laureate of the protest movement, voice of the burgeoning subculture fighting for civil rights and against the Vietnam war. His previous album, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, was comprised mostly (7/10) of ‘socially conscious’ songs. Finger-pointers. Protest songs.

Then Dylan took a 20-day cross-continental road trip with three friends, checking out America and himself and writing songs. BD: “We were driving through Colorado, we had the radio on, and eight of the Top 10 songs were Beatles songs … ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ all those early ones. They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid … I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go.”


Photo Daniel Kramer

In March-April he rented an electric guitar and took LSD for the first time. On June 9 he recorded 14 songs in a single session. Eleven of the songs became “Another Side of Bob Dylan”, with ‘Denise, Denise’, ‘Mama You’ve Been on My Mind’ and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (here’s the original recording from that session) were rejected. A number of unsuccessful songs made the cut (‘Black Crow Blues’, ‘Spanish Harlem Incident’, ‘To Ramona’, ‘Ballad in Plain D’).

Nonetheless, the album is a tour de force of ebullience, introspection and joy.  ‘Chimes of Freedom’ looks at the same social materials as his previous works, but with a view that is distinctly personal and revelatory (the LSD experience?). ‘My Back Pages’ is his expressed rejection of social protest. Dylan was transmogrifying from topical troubadour to poet of the road.



All I Really Want to Do’ is a hilarious, textually brilliant, disingenuous seduction song (all he really wants to do is the exact opposite of his ostensibly innocent desires – he wants to get into her pants.) ‘I Don’t Believe You’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ are the prototypes of his ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ genre of put-down songs. But “Another Side of Bob Dylan” isn’t about anger. The profoundly comic ‘I Shall Be Free No. 10’ and ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ are fun; in contrast with even the ‘humorous’ songs on the subsequent “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Highway 61 Revisited”, both of which explode with anger. “ASOBD” is a pastiche of directions, but all sharing the common tone of affirmation—unique in Dylan’s golden first decade. It’s not until “Nashville Skyline” and “New Morning” that he has anything good to say about the world. And neither of them are as incisive, probing or convincing as the successful songs on “ASOBD”.

As a composite, “ASOBD” is a work of genius, too often overshadowed by the masterpieces that came before and after.

Mother Bates

Mother Bates

Motorpsycho Nightmare

What elevates ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ above a simple take-off joke song (let’s say ‘Rocky Raccoon’ or ‘Fourth Time Around’, two fundamentally derivative tribute/spinoff/parody songs which never rise above the initial conception?) First of all, the mix of disparate yet suitable elements. On the one hand, Bates Motel is not so different from the archetypal farmhouse. And Norman does indulge in some pretty spiffy cross-dressing.

hitchcock_shadowBut Dylan makes it all his own. He changes Mother Bates into the Rita/Anita Ekberg seductress. He adds to the mix the political/cultural schism brewing in the US (conservative America’s anti-intellectual paranoia over leftist agitators). The song was made in 1964, the height of the Cold War, the year Barry Goldwater ran for president.

Dylan employs here his remarkable talent as a wordsmith, an aspect of his songwriting that often goes unnoticed. Yes, he’s surprising and imaginative and precise and profound. Indeed, a poet. But he’s also a consummate craftsman à la Cole Porter. “I was sleepin’ like a rat when I heard something jerkin’/There stood Rita lookin’ just like Tony Perkins.” “Then in comes his daughter whose name was Rita/She looked like she stepped out of La Dolce Vita.” I can see him grinning at those lines, proud as punch over his cleverness. And rightfully so.

bob-dylan-profile-beethoven-silhouetteAnd the loopy, loony narrative humor. He sees Rita, and “I immediately tried to cool it with her dad/And told him what a nice, pretty farm he had.” Our narrator impatiently wants to get at the girl, but the old man insists on engaging him in a political debate. Or the obstacle to his running away: his promise to the farmer to milk the cow in the morning.

So what do we have here? A yarn, a dirty joke stood on its head, a sleight of hand game of memes and tropes; a tour de force of archetypes and stereotypes and prototypes; the brilliant humor of a brilliant artist at the pinnacle of his technical and imaginative powers.

Have you heard the one about the traveling troubadour?


I pounded on a farmhouse lookin’ for a place to stay

I was mighty, mighty tired, I had come a long, long way

I said, “Hey, hey, in there, is there anybody home?”

I was standin’ on the steps feelin’ most alone

Well, out comes a farmer, he must have thought that I was nuts

He immediately looked at me and stuck a gun into my guts


I fell down to my bended knees

Saying, “I dig farmers, don’t shoot me, please!”

He cocked his rifle and began to shout

“You’re that travelin’ salesman that I have heard about”

I said, “No! No! No! I’m a doctor and it’s true

I’m a clean-cut kid And I been to college, too”


Then in comes his daughter whose name was Rita

She looked like she stepped out of La Dolce Vita

I immediately tried to cool it with her dad

And told him what a nice, pretty farm he had

He said, “What do doctors know about farms, pray tell?”

I said, “I was born at the bottom of a wishing well”


Well, by the dirt ’neath my nails I guess he knew I wouldn’t lie

“I guess you’re tired” he said, kinda sly

I said, “Yes, ten thousand miles today I drove”

He said, “I got a bed for you underneath the stove

Just one condition and you go to sleep right now

That you don’t touch my daughter and in the morning, milk the cow”


I was sleepin’ like a rat when I heard something jerkin’

There stood Rita lookin’ just like Tony Perkins

She said, “Would you like to take a shower? I’ll show you up to the door”

I said, “Oh, no! no! I’ve been through this before”

I knew I had to split but I didn’t know how

When she said “Would you like to take that shower, now?”


Well, I couldn’t leave unless the old man chased me out

’Cause I’d already promised that I’d milk his cows

I had to say something to strike him very weird

So I yelled out “I like Fidel Castro and his beard”

Rita looked offended but she got out of the way

As he came charging down the stairs sayin’, “What’s that I heard you say?”


I said, “I like Fidel Castro, I think you heard me right”

And ducked as he swung at me with all his might

Rita mumbled something ’bout her mother on the hill

As his fist hit the icebox he said he’s going to kill me

If I don’t get out the door in two seconds flat

“You unpatriotic rotten doctor Commie rat”


Well, he threw a Reader’s Digest at my head and I did run

I did a somersault as I seen him get his gun

And crashed through the window at a hundred miles an hour

And landed fully blast in his garden flowers

Rita said, “Come back!” as he started to load

The sun was comin’ up and I was runnin’ down the road


Well, I don’t figure I’ll be back there for a spell

Even though Rita moved away and got a job in a motel

He still waits for me constant, on the sly

He wants to turn me in to the F.B.I.

Me, I romp and stomp thankful as I romp

Without freedom of speech I might be in the swamp


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

207: The Beatles, ‘Rocky Raccoon’; and Bob Dylan, ‘Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’/’Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’

214: The Beatles, ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’

176: Chuck Berry, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (Bob Dylan, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’)


220: Cilla Black, ‘Alfie’

Posted by jeff on Aug 7, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week
Cilla Black, Burt Bacharach recording 'Alfie'

Cilla Black, Burt Bacharach recording ‘Alfie’

Cilla Black – ‘Alfie’

Starting in the eighth grade, peaking in my sophomore year in college, and schlepping into dodderdom, the eternal question: “How can you judge music? How can you say one song is better than another?”

I’ll tell you how. Listen to Cilla Black’s ‘Alfie’ Listen to a thousand other ladies singing it. Listen to 10,000 other pop hits from the same era. You’ll cease asking the question. It’s engraved in the sky. This is fine, fine music.

The story is as long and twisted as a bolt of Mexican spaghetti after a weekend in the Ankara bus station.

In 1966, Michael Caine was already a star (“The Ipcress File”), a new breed of sex symbol –bespectacled. My mother said I resembled him; but, alas, she was the only female to see that. He was cast as a serial womanizer in a British comedy-drama which presaged the current plague of Generation Y’ers: urban, disengaged, self-serving, sharp and witty, acutely cute.

Cilla Black

Cilla Black

The producers wanted a song as a tie-in to the movie. They convinced Brill Building masters Burt Bacharach and Hal David to try their hand at it, despite the pedestrian name (“Alfie’s a dog’s name.”) For a change, Hal wrote the lyrics first, working from a line in the script: “What’s it all about?” Here’s Burt describing the process and singing it (“my favorite song of ours.”)

B&D wanted their default chanteuse, Dionne Warwick, to sing the song, but the producers wanted a Britte, so when Sandy Shaw turned it down they turned to Liverpudlian Cilla Black, stablemate and childhood friend of Les Beatles under Brian Epstein’s management.

In SoTW 034 I expounded and expanded about Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Dionne Warwick, and their masterpiece ‘Walk On By’.

Burt Bacharach & orchestra, 'Alfie' sessions at Abbey Road Studio One, 1965

Burt Bacharach & orchestra, ‘Alfie’ sessions at Abbey Road Studio One, 1965

Cilla had already had a Bacharach/David hit in the UK, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, a pale imitation of the stunning original Bacharach arrangement for Dionne. She was hesitant, insisting that Bacharach come to England to conduct and play piano, trying to quash the deal. He agreed, and a legendary session of 31 takes with a 48-piece orchestra took place in Studio One at Abbey Road under the direction of Bacharach and George Martin. This clip tells the fascinating story, and is well worth watching.

The single was released in January 1966, eight months prior to the opening of the film, essentially intended to promote interest in the upcoming film. It went nowhere in the US, but became a Top Ten hit in the UK.

The director objected to the B&D song being used in the film, feeling it would interfere with the Sonny Rollins jazz score. A compromise was reached in which the song would appear over the closing credits. But!—

Cher singing 'Alfie' on The Smothers Brothers Show

Cher singing ‘Alfie’ on The Smothers Brothers Show

The Suits decided to commission a new version–by young hottie Cher (here in a memorable shocking yellow mini-dress on The Smothers Brothers’ TV show), produced by hubby Sonny (Bono, not Rollins; and not that Bono, but the mayor of Palm Springs—oh, forget it!) which was released as a single in June, and made it up to #32.  Bacharach said laconically that Cher’s version was “different than how I had envisioned it.”

To coplimcate the matter even further—there were at least eight other versions recorded by the time of the movie’s release (August, 1966). I won’t even go into which version was included on which version of the movie soundtrack record.

But little Alfie (the shaggy dog—see the final scene from the movie) keeps going. B&D recorded Dionne singing the song as an afterthought at the end of a session in 1967, hitting #15.

Despite its messy release history, ‘Alfie’ has become one of the most iconic pop hits of the past half century, a song that can stand proudly with the best of the Great American Songbook. It’s been covered by everyone and the kitchen sink, including Stevie Wonder’s knockout harmonica hit version from 1968 (here live with Burt), a lovely version by Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston.

Paul and Cilla

Paul and Cilla

Somewhat more in my comfort zone, it gives us a rare chance to compare versions by my two favorite pianists: Bill Evans (here from an incredible film of a home performance in Finland, 1969 with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morrell, including a chat on the creative process) and Brad Mehldau (here from an outstanding 2003 bootleg, Jorge Rossy and Larry Grenadier).

Cilla Black died this week. Her small reputation in the US was as a cohort of The Beatles et al in the early days of The Cavern. There’s a quite charming, unpretentious British mini-series bio-pic “Cilla” from 2014 documenting those days quite realistically, recommended for fans of the era. But in the UK, she had 11 Top Ten hits from 1964-1971, including three written for her by Lennon and McCartney (‘Love of the Loved’, ‘Step Inside Love’, and ‘It’s For You’, three very evocative clips).

Cilla Black, Dionne Warwick

Cilla Black, Dionne Warwick

From the late 1960s, Cilla began a long career as a hostess of a variety of television shows, making her a major household face and name in the UK.

I’ve watched this clip about her recording ‘Alfie’ with Burt Bacharach and George Martin several times, enjoyed every time. (Here are Burt and Cilla, some years on, reminiscing about the session.) Treat yourselves. I don’t think you or anyone on this earth will disagree—‘Alfie’ is one heck of a good song.


What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or are we meant to be kind?

And if only fools are kind, Alfie
Then I guess it’s wise to be cruel;
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie
What will you lend on an old golden rule?

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.

I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie.
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie.



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217: Amy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’

Posted by jeff on Jun 26, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

ae69a33960419cf9796bf37b692be13bAmy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’ (live, 2007)
Amy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’ (original, official video)

It’s not enochlophobia (fear of crowds) that I suffer from (hey, I was at Woodstock, and I’ve performed the priestly blessing at the Western Wall), but rather an allergy to That Which The Masses Adulate. Call it acute snobbery.

Why ‘suffer’? Because I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I want to be cool, which means being hip, which means being au courant, which means listening to the music that in-the-know young folk are listening to. On the other, if everyone’s chasing it, I’m going in the other direction.

When the movie “Hard Day’s Night” was released, I wouldn’t go see it for the first month because the theater was full of screaming girls. I wanted to see and hear my Beatles. To hear all the overtones of the first chord. To chuckle knowingly to myself every time Paul said “Actually, we’re just good friends”, to nod sagaciously when George quips “You don’t see many of these nowadays, do you?” Those teenie twerpettes wouldn’t get the jokes, and I wasn’t going to strain to hear them over their grunts and squeaks and groans and moans. Quiet chuckle, that’s me. Still is. When McCartney or Simon comes to town to play the stadia, you’ll find me at home sipping tea and listening to their original recordings from 40 years ago. With headphones.

Foto-KOSBZJA4But there’s a catch here. “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong” was the title of his second collection of greatest hits (1959). If you think there’s no truth in that, check out Young Elvis. I think most people think of Elvis like this. I think of Elvis like this. It was a great piece of advertising, and the cover has become iconic, spawning imitations from Rod Stewart to Bon Jovi. We could discuss ad nauseum here the dialectic of popularity vs sincerity, as I did most nights in the dorm of my freshman year in college.

But more interesting is the fact that the RCA copywriters snatched the Elvis meme from Sophie Tucker. Who’s Sophie Tucker? Find that out yourself, Virginia, but in 1927 she had a hit as big as her bazooms with ‘Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong’. And what’s a ‘meme’ you may ask (as I did)? It’s an “idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. As opposed to a snowclone, which is a “neologism for a type of cliché and phrasal template, a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants (‘grey is the new black’)”.  I promise to report back to you on the difference between your meme and your snowclone. As soon as I figure it out.

Which brings us right to Amy Winehouse (1983-2011). She achieved stardom at the ripe young age of 20, recorded two albums, a slew of bonus tracks (gosh I long for the days of orderly discographies) and piles of live performance videos; and died at 27 from rampant indulgence in every addiction known to modern womankind. She was over-the-edge provocative from the git-go, but adulated. With/despite her filthy mouth, her retro beehive hairdo, her outlandish attire, she became a lifestyle model. The media coddled her. The half a billion grandchildren of the fifty million Elvis fans embraced her, even as they were booing her for being too drunk to finish her stage performance.

What made her so popular? Her mouth? Her hair? Her boobs? The screaming, teeming masses kept me away for ten years. But now that the noise has died down enough for me to give a listen, I can tell you why. It was her voice and her songs. Her very impressive and serious musicianship. Her very fine talent.

I won’t pretend to have mastered her extensive library of bootlegs and outtakes, and I’m sure I have absolutely nothing to add about Amy to those who followed her career in real-time. But not surprisingly, some of my old codger friends are latecomers and (now that the shouting has died down) impressed and interested. So these few observations are for them.

Her two albums are fine, polished, cheeky, fun. But for our Song of The Week we’re going with a live version of the title track of her second album, “Back to Black”, from the 2007 Glastonbury festival. And here’s the whole concert, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

ronnieWhat do we have here? Well, the opening riff is ripped from The Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’. (I had the privilege of seeing Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention perform this song in concert, but that’s something wholly other.)  The beehive hairdo is usually attributed to The Supremes’ darker colleagues The Ronettes. Here’s their ‘Be My Baby’. The influence on Amy is pretty obvious. What might be less so are the facts that a) Brian Wilson called this the greatest pop record ever made (Phil Spector, of course); b) young Cher sang backup on the original recording; c) lead singer Ronnie Bennett became Mrs Spector; The Rolling Stones opened for Les Ronettes on their the latter’s 1964 UK tour; and the girls opened for The Beatles on their 1966 US tour.

But by Amy’s time, the sultry chick singer was backed not by two chicklettes, but by two very well-endowed, very suggestive male singer/dancers. One wonders what all was written into their contract. She’s backed as well by a very fine, versatile band, playing her whole amalgam of styles, drawing generously from Motown, blue-eyed soul, and of course Dinah Washington.

Amy’s debt to Dinah is great and openly acknowledged. Here’s Amy explaining just how great the influence is, not only in vocal styling, but in style, in attitude, in the way they both perceive and describe the world. But Amy is no cheap imitatress. Check out the lovely segue from the Motown Funk Brothers beat to the lovely jazz groove at 2:30. We’re talking giants on the shoulders of giants.

amy-winehouseAmy’s relatively small repertoire includes lots of ‘covers’. But they’re neither derivative nor fillers. They’re homages to fine, pre-worn materials that she makes her own. Check out her ‘Our Day Will Come’ and Ruby and the Romantics’ original; or her ragged, reggaed ‘Cupid’ version of Sam Cooke’s original; or her ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, cf The Shirelles’ original (written of course by Carole King, her first #1 hit, subject of SoTW 182); her version of the Teddy Bears’ ‘To Know Him is to Love Him’ (Phil Spector’s very first hit); or her lovely, respectful treatment of James Moody’s jazz classic ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ (here’s King Pleasure’s original version; it’s been covered by such luminaries as Van Morrison and Kurt Elling).

Amy’s great originals (‘Tears Dry on Their Own’, ‘You Know I’m No Good’, ‘Rehab’, ‘Stronger Than Me’) draw upon numerous rich traditions. But make no mistake. Covers, self-penned, Amy Winehouse was an original.

What lessons can we draw from Amy’s legacy? Yes, her membership in the 27 club (Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain) is indeed tragic. And her self-destructive exhibitionism is pornographically riveting. But the music is real, and solid, and lasting. The generation Xers and Yers would be enriched by listening to her forebears. And us baby boomers, albeit belatedly, should avail ourselves of this fine, very serious and very talented vocal artist.

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