2

140: Randy Newman, ‘Sail Away’

Posted by jeff on Jan 10, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Randy Newman, ‘Sail Away’

All right, sports fans and music lovers! Here’s the SoTW you’ve all been waiting for! I know tensions have been running high (my inbox has been completely clogged with queries for weeks now), waiting to see the results of our First Annual Strangest Setting in a Song from Randy Newman’s First Three Albums (FASSSRNFTA, or SSSRN for short). So without further adieu, Ladies and Gentleman, the–

Just before we start, why Randy’s first three albums? Primarily, because I make the SSSRN rules, and I see the first three studio albums as the core of his career, the songs that you have to look at twice before you get them. Or more.

  1. “More Than a New Discovery” – one of the unappreciated gems of the rock idiom. Brilliant, hilarious, utterly serious satire, stunning songs, composition, orchestral arrangements. He actually has a lot to say about life (Utah politicians, retirement in Florida and Deus Absconditis). A modern masterpiece.
  2. “12 Songs” – kick-ass band, sterling production, dealing more directly in the marginal (a guy who gets off doing it to the fires he sets, a gent calling a girl whose number he found on the wall of a telephone booth, the universality of humankind, even including chinks).
  3. “Sail Away” – a mixed bag of great individual songs, with topics ranging from A Boy and His Bear to the Wright Brothers to Eminent Domain.

The fourth album “Good Old Boys” revolves around Redneck-bashing, which may be fun, but it’s not exactly revelatory material. The fifth album, “Little Criminals” has some gems (‘Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in American’) but is already dumbing down the acerbicity (‘Short People’) because Rand was apparently feeling lonely at the top.

The 2012 Strangest Setting in a Song from Randy Newman awards:

This photo was an insert in “12 Songs”. I’ve loved it dearly all these many years; it was quite innovative for the day. I’m assuming it’s Randy and his family. Unfortunately I had to crop it a little. The grain is in the original. Click to see it full-size.

3rd Place – ‘Lucinda’ (“12 Songs”). I don’t have words for it. Randy has the words for it:

We met one summer evening
As the sun was going down.
She was lying on the beach
In her graduation gown.
She was wrapped up in a blanket
(I could tell she knew her way around),
And as I lay down beside her
You know she never made a sound.
On down the beach came the beach-cleaning man,
Scoopin’ up the papers and flattening down the sand.
“Lucinda, Lucinda, Lucinda – we’ve got to run away
That big white truck is closin’ in, and we’ll get wounded if we stay”

 2nd Place – ‘Davy the Fat Boy’, in which our narrator inherits freakishly fat Davy from his trusting parents, and promptly turns him into a carnival freak-show exhibit (“What do he weigh, folks? Win a teddy bear for the girlfriend!”)

1st Place – Oh, the tension. The envelope, please. And the winner is: ‘Sail Away’, title tune of the third. In which the head honcho on a slave ship gives his wards a motivational chat about the New World awaiting them:

In America you’ll get food to eat.
You won’t have to run through the jungle scuffing up your feet.
You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day –
It’s great to be an American. 

Admittedly, you don’t find a plethora of pop songs on this theme. It sure ain’t ‘I saw you kissing Judy in the back seat of your Chevy’ grist.

Ain’t no lions or tigers, ain’t no mamba snake,
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Ev’rybody is as happy as a man can be–
Climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me. 

Ah, those mamba snakes. No wonder they’re happy to be setting out on this all-expenses-paid vacation.

Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay 

And indeed, Randy proved quite the prophet, foreseeing by centuries the domestic tranquility engendered by this humanitarian exodus:

In America every man is free to take care of his home and his family.
You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree–
You’re all gonna be an American. 

So congrats, Randy, on winning the prize. Of course, you win the prize every year, because it’s the SSSRN competition. But still. You’re our man.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

085: Randy Newman: ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (First Album)
053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’
044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

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17

133: Spencer Davis Group (Stevie Winwood), ‘I’m A Man’

Posted by jeff on Dec 28, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

Spencer Davis Group, ‘I’m A Man’

I never cease to be amazed at the disparity between what you expect from some ostensibly tasteful people and their ringtones. You know, like the professorial octogenarian on the train, and all of a sudden some crass electronic salsa comes blaring out of his iPhone.

I of course have a metal bell ringtone on my phone. But I’ve often wondered, if I had to pick a pinch of music that would identify me to all those people on the train, and one that I had to hear at least five times a week (I don’t get a lot of calls), what would it be?

I’m not sure how well I could hear a bass guitar above the rumble of the train, but mundane technicalities aside, my runaway choice would be the spooky, funky, dark, glorious introduction to The Spencer Davis Group’s ‘I’m A Man’ – written, played, and sung by the 18-year old Stevie Winwood.

Stevie was a 15-year old Birmingham schoolboy when he formed a band with his brother Muff and their mate Spencer. Muff: “Spencer was the only one who enjoyed doing interviews, so I pointed out that if we called it the Spencer Davis Group, the rest of us could stay in bed and let him do them.” They had two very forgettable hits in 1966 which will remain uncited here. Then in 1966-7 (“Although the recording is said to be late 1966, this date is in fact controversial. In an article and an interview on the “Living Archives” (Elävä arkisto) website of YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation, the producer of the original live recording, Mr. Tapani Karhu, clearly states that the date of the show was 19 March 1967.”) [SNORE—JM] they recorded two stunning, deep black-and-blue smash hits cut from the same bolt of cloth, “Gimme Some Lovin’” and our SoTW, ‘I’m A Man’.

Both songs are co-written by the adolescent Winwood, ‘I’m A Man’ together with Yankee mega-producer-to-be Jimmy Miller (“Beggar’s Banquet”, “Let It Bleed”, “Blind Faith”). I don’t know what instruments Stevie plays on the recordings. On these very live versions of ‘I’m A Man’ and “Gimme Some Lovin’”, he plays organ. (Why are organists always pushing all those buttons? It almost always sounds like a skating rink anyway. But not in the masterful hands of Stevie Winwood.) For my money, he’s the most talented white multi-instrumentalist in rock (no one’s going to try to compete with that other Stevie W., right?), rivaled only by Stephen Stills. He plays organ, piano, acoustic, rhythm, lead and bass, all brilliantly, all worth the price of admission.

I don’t know who plays bass on the recorded version of ‘I’m A Man’. It might be Stevie’s older brother, but if you watch him fumble through the bass intro on the live version, and then compare it to the memorable recorded version–I’d put my money on the younger Winwood.

And that’s not to mention his voice, one of the most distinctive and soulful ever heard in honky town. Listen to his rendition of ‘Georgia On My Mind’. He admits his debt to Ray Charles, and the surface similarity is obvious. What I find so remarkable is this British kid doing The Genius’s song with such mature respect, without slavish imitation and without competing. His treatment is mature, self-confident, and virtuosic. Stevie Winwood’s voice takes a back seat to absolutely no one, never.

So what about the song ‘I’m A Man’ itself? The bass, the shakers, the Hammond, the little bell, the guitar, the drums, the handclap, the voice, the backing vocals, Jimmy Miller’s percussion embellishments. Ay ay ay, it just doesn’t get any better than that. The lyrics rank with The Rolling Stones of that era (‘Satisfaction’, ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby’) for indecipherability, but who cares?

Stevie went on to bigger things (Traffic, Blind Faith) but never better ones. There is nothing better than these two songs. The kid is eighteen, his acne clearly showing in the close-ups. But, oh, the voice.

I have a long history with ‘I’m A Man’. Once upon a time I directed a funky, punky ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in a discotheque. The actors occupied the dance floor, the audience the rest of the space. The first two scenes dispense with the young royals in the palace, and with the rustics. Then the third scene gets into the nitty-gritty: the haunted, enchanted wood inhabited by Oberon, Titania, and a whole gaggle of fairies. I like visual (as opposed to verbal) theater, especially Shakespeare (“Would he had blotted a thousand”). So instead of Puck describing the frightful atmosphere of the forest Elizabethan pentameter, I had a lot of luscious lasses in lascivious leather leaping across the disco floor, strobes all a-strobing. And some Winwood thumping that inimitable bass introduction to ‘I’m A Man’.

That’s my ringtone.

Well my pad is very messy and there’s whiskers on my chin
And I’m all hung up on music and I always play to win
I ain’t got no time for lovin’ cause my time is all used up
Just to sit around creatin’ all that groovy kind of stuff.
I’m a man, yes I am, and I can’t help but love you so
I’m a man, yes I am, and I can’t help but love you so

Well if I had my choice of matter I would rather be with cats
All engrossed in mental chatter moving where our minds are at
And relating to each other just how strong our wills can be
I’m resisting all involvement with each groovy chick we see

I got to keep my image while suspended from a throne
That looks out upon a kingdom full of people all unknown
Who imagine I’m not human and my heart is made of stone
I never had no problems and my toilet’s trimmed with chrome

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

025: The Zombies, ‘Care of Cell 44′

043: The Left Banke, ‘Pretty Ballerina’

074: Donovan, ‘House of Jansch’

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5

222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

Posted by jeff on Dec 13, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week
Photo by Joel Bernstein

Photo by Joel Bernstein

Joni Mitchell – River

Howdy, SoTW readers. Merry Christmas to all my Christian fellowmen out there. How y’all doing? I do hope all’s well by you and yours.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog so much is that (according to the charter I wrote myself) I can write and say whatever I want, without being concerned about pleasing the audience. But I admit that I do peek at my stats on occasion, and am pleased the higher they go.

I’ve figured out over the years (I’m slow, this should have been obvious before I started) that people like to read about what they know. I’d do the same. Normal people prefer familiar music. So a post about ‘Twist and Shout’ is going to garner more hits than the one about the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir.

f3e1e3d32ff93437dd15cc304ba6859fAnd guess who has been the most popular subject on Song of The Week over the years? Joni, not surprisingly. If you’ve been following closely, I’ve been walking through her albums, picking one song or two to  pontificate on:

In the posting about ‘Blue’ I described how daunting it is to take on a masterpiece. It took me a long time to work up the courage to approach “The Band”, and I’m still working myself up to “Pet Sounds”. But having broken the ice with ‘Blue’, we’re going to treat ourselves to address at least one more of the ten glorious tracks. So we might as well go for the very best (without diminishing a whit the wonders ensconced in ‘All I Want’, ‘Carey, or any of the others) – ‘River’, a song about ‘skating away’. Careful, Jeff; careful, Joni; the ice is broken, you don’t want to fall in.

adc535077eb429d2fc81b8880db90931A few live performances by James Taylor (the aforementioned heartbreaker) and by Joni:
James Taylor at the Joni Mitchell Tribute Concert, 2001
James Taylor (unattributed)
Joni Mitchell – Live, with lovely photos and videos of Joni in the snow
Herbie Hancock (piano), Joni Mitchell (vocal)

And here’s my favorite cover of River, by the Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line, a stunning arrangement by the wonderful Line Groth.

Joni’s ‘River’ is a moving piece of music. I don’t know many people who would disagree. It juxtaposes Los Angeles vs Saskatchewan, green vs white, noise vs silence, public festiveness vs private grief, desire for the other vs preservation of self. It’s a song about heartbreak and homesickness.

What do we have? “Jingle Bells” played in minor, the simplest joys couched in pain, the irony in the very first chords setting the stage for this vignette of defeat and resignation.

ChristmasCardRiver1“It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees.”
“They’re putting up trees” would have scanned just as well. But Joni’s December is a killing season, a termination of vitality. Nobody’s sad during Christmas season. Except for those with a broken heart. Within that painful contrast resides her sadness.

“They’re putting up reindeer”. Plastic ones, Made in LaLaLand. In Saskatchewan we have, if not reindeer, then deer, elk, moose and caribou. Real ones. “Singing songs of joy and peace.” They are. Not me. I’m singing Jingle Bells in minor.

What are you doing there, Joni? What keeps you in LA? “I’m going to make a lot of money, then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.” But this year it’s going to be California, “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.”

“I wish I had a river I could skate away on.“ What an evocative image. A frozen river, its source somewhere in northern Saskatchewan, flowing those 2000 miles down to the city of fallen angels. But there is no such river. The Saskatchewan River itself flows eastwards for a mere 340 miles, emptying into Lake Winnipeg.

10864825_1533269443599960_2073203298_nWho among us – even the non-skaters – has not longed for that selfsame river? To escape ‘this crazy scene’, to flee back to the innocence of childhood, security, unconditional love. Did Hamlet not long to “shuffle off this mortal coil”, to escape “the whips and scorns of time”? Did Keats’ Nightingale not seek flight?

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades.

But we all know it’s a fiction. There is no river that will take us ‘back to where we once belonged’. If we were fortunate enough, we found a love “so naughty made me weak in the knees”. But Joni has “lost the best baby that I ever had”. Lost him why? “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.” She knows the score. “I made my baby say goodbye.” No recriminations of him or herself – that’s not the point. Nothing but loss and sadness.

Much ink has been spilled discussing the resonance of “Blue”, its “excruciating candor”, the profound effect it had on women in 1971, on songwriters, on everyone. “If you looked at me [during the recording sessions], I would weep; we had to lock the doors to make that album. Nobody was allowed in.”

From a 1979 interview: “The ‘Blue’ album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.”

ca0e11adc57f38b8ccca0a0e8221d773Joni often skates on that thin ice, risking the ridiculous to achieve the sublime.  Think about this phrase.  She does indeed transcend, take wing, defying gravity.

She has created for herself and for us a river so long that our own feet can fly us away from this troubled world.

Oh, Joni.

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,
They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace .
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

But it don’t snow here, it stays pretty green.
I’m going to make a lot of money, then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby cry

He tried hard to help me, you know, he put me at ease.
He loved me so naughty made me weak in the knees.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Oh, I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby say goodbye

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,
They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace .
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on…

 

 

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5

136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’

Posted by jeff on Dec 6, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – Wonderful World

What happens when three of the finest and most successful singers of our times get together to record a pop paean to pimply passion? Well, when it’s James Taylor hooking up with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to sing “Don’t know much about no Rise and Fall, don’t know much about nothin’ at all”, it’s pretty darn memorable.

Paul, Art, James

Paul and James had been friends since their teenage backpacking days circa 1966 as the two leading Americans in the nascent London folk scene. Fame snuck up on Paul while he was in London, when (unbeknownst to him) the acoustic ‘Sounds of Silence’ he had recorded with Art was overdubbed with electric guitars and drums, thereby inventing folk-rock. Meanwhile, James was hanging out with Peter Asher and becoming the first non-British artist signed by The Beatles’ Apple label.

If you don’t know what happened to James and Paul and Art in the late 1960s/early 1970s, you should probably be out mowing the lawn or watching Championship Bowling.

In late 1977, James got a call from his neighbor Paul, who was in a period of reconciliation with Art, who had provided backing vocals on James’ “In The Pocket” album the year before (the very fine ‘Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream’ and the sublime ‘A Junkie’s Lament’) the year before. Art had recorded an album of Jimmy Webb songs, “Watermark”, which was his best solo effort artistically but another commercial flop. It seems Paul was feeling sorry for his ex-, seeing how his own solo career was flourishing. So he called James, and the three of them convened in Paul’s apartment to record a song for belated addition to the already-released album.

In 1978, refashioning up-tempo rock songs into gentle ballads was nothing new—way back in the nascent years of rock and roll, Buddy Holly covered Little Richard’s raucous 1956 ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’ twice, in a slow electric version and in an unreleased acoustic version.  (The Band and John Lennon also tried their respective hands at the song, albeit in the spirit of the original.)

Wonderful World

I’m assuming it was James who chose to record the Sam Cooke hit, ‘(What a) Wonderful World’. He had been reworking bouncy rock and roll standards in just the same acoustic, introspective, gentle mode to great success (his mega-hit ‘Handy Man’, a hit for Jimmy Jones in 1959; and his Carole King-penned ‘Up On The Roof’, a hit for The Drifters in 1962). In SoTW 112, we took a look at what James could do to Beatles songs such as ‘If I Needed Someone’ and ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, not to mention the already-ballad ‘Yesterday’.

But whoever picked the song, it’s James’ vocals that invest it with such magic. One of the most common planks in the SoTW soapbox is just how fine an artist James Taylor is, and no matter how much of an icon he has become today, his artistry is loved more than understood or seriously appreciated. One of his many insufficiently appreciated talents is as a harmony singer. In my not-so-humble opinion, James and David Crosby stand head and shoulders above the field as harmonizers supreme.

All the others, Art Garfunkel and Graham Nash and the Everlies included, go for the easy choices—adding a second voice a third or a fourth above the lead. James and Crosby have a penchant for adding subtle harmonies below the lead, where they unobtrusively add a depth and a resonance unique in the world of rock.

Take for example TS&G’s ‘Wonderful World’. In the second verse (‘Don’t know much about Geography’), S sings the lead with G singing a fourth above him. Just like in Simon and Garfunkel. It’s not a bad formula—they sold about three bazillion records that way. Contrast it with the introduction (TS&G) or the first verse (G singing lead, T harmonizing a minor third underneath him, then S adding a falsetto counterpart). Then listen to what happens in the second verse when JT joins in on ‘But I do know one and one is two’. Nothing more than the quantum shift from 2D to 3D.

The choice of the song is no little win in and of itself. It was originally a hit (#12 in the US) for Sam Cooke in 1960, and  placed 373rd in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was written by Lou Adler (producer of Cooke, The Mamas & the Papas, Barry McGuire, and Carole King, including her Tapestry album; former husband of Shelley Fabares; and Lakers’ courtside crony of Jack Nicholson), Herb Alpert (Mr. Tijuana Brass, producer of The Carpenters and  Sérgio Mendes, and the Broadway “Angels In America”, mogul and sculptor), with finishing touches by Sam Cooke himself. Lou Rawls sings backup on the original.

It is so irresistible that it’s been recycled more times than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill:

  • The 1965 #4 hit for Herman’s Hermits, recorded as a tribute to Sam Cooke after his horrific death
  • An obscure version by Blind Willie (“Magicfingers”) Feigenbaum, the main claim to fame of which is the fact that the soft, acoustic treatment preceded that of TS&G by several years.
  • The 1978 cult classic film “Animal House
  • The 1983 Richard Gere demeaning remake of Godard’s “Breathless
  • The 1985 Harrison Ford/Kelly McGillis film “Witness
  • The 1985 Levi’s 501 commercial (which I don’t understand, but was voted the 19th greatest song ever to feature in a commercial)
  • The 2005 Will Smith film “Hitch

And here are the wonderful lyrics to this whimsical, witty paean to mindless teenage love. I taught high school for 25 years. Believe me, every word of it is true:

Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology.
Don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took.
But I do know that I love you, and I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be

Don’t know much geography, don’t know much trigonometry.
Don’t know much about algebra, don’t know what a slide rule is for.
But I do know that one and one is two, and if this one could be with you
What a wonderful world this would be

Now I don’t claim to be an “A” student, but I’m trying to be.
I think that maybe by being an “A” student baby, I could win your love for me

Don’t know much about the Middle Ages, look at the pictures and I turn the pages.
Don’t know much about no Rise and Fall, don’t know much about nothin’ at all.
‘Cause it’s you that I’ve been thinking of, and if I could only win your love,
What a wonderful world this would be.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

Sam Cooke Songs of The Week

James Taylor Songs of The Week

Paul Simon Songs of The Week

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