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285: James Brown, ‘Night Train’ (The T.A.M.I. Show)

Posted by jeff on Jun 22, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

 

James Brown, ‘Out of Sight’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, ‘Prisoner of Love’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, ‘Please, Please, Please’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, ‘Night Train’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, all four songs from “The T.A.M.I. Show”

“The T.A.M.I. Show” complete

In December, 1964, a legendary music video was made called “The T.A.M.I. Show”.  It’s notable because there’s a remarkable roster of stars of the day giving career-defining performances which were captured on an early version of hi-definition TV.

And it’s remembered frequently because The Rolling Stones agreed to follow James Brown (and close the show), which both Keith and Mick still good-naturedly rue today as the biggest mistake of their careers.

I admit I’ve never been a big fan of James Brown, even though I’m aware that behind the pro wrestling façade of silly drama and staged emoting, he is a musician’s musician, together with his Famous Flames. As a bandleader and performer, “The Godfather of Soul” is considered the epitome of tightness in all aspects of performance, not to mention being the inventor of funk and the source of what Michael Jackson bleached and diluted with such great success.

But I do admit that the four songs he performs on The T.A.M.I. Show are probably the most intense and exciting performance I’ve ever seen.

James Brown is a better performer than I am a writer, so I’m not even going to try to describe in mere words how energy-charged these performances are. How you’re really admiring The Famous Flames’ moves (in ‘Please, Please, Please), and then you see James stomping his feet like a baby throwing a tantrum, and get that he’s stomping in perfect triple time. Or how he falls to his knees in utter faux counterfeit exhaustion and lands SLAM! on the downbeat.

Seeing is believing. Or in this case, maybe not. It was Edgar Allan Poe (of all people) who wrote “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” Apparently Edgar had seen The T.A.M.I. Show.

James Brown ‘warms up’ with ‘Out of Sight’ and ‘Prisoner of Love’. ‘Warms up’ is somewhat of a misnomer, since the heat he generates there can compete with that generated by the sun on a Nevada afternoon in mid-July. But even that unlucky old sun can’t compete with ‘Please, Please, Please’ and especially the encore ‘Night Train’.

‘Please, Please, Please’ showcases his dancing and introduces the WWE cape-trick routine. It really does defy the imagination. But wait. Then comes the finale:

‘Night Train’, his encore, includes no less than six false endings, and everyone’s on their feet, screaming for him to come back: the 14-year old black girls, the 14-year old white girls, the band, the three backup singers, and you, and me. All of us. And we really mean it.

Maybe someday I’ll come back and walk you through the entire T.A.M.I. Show (“Teenage Awards Music International” or “Teen Age Music International” if you’re boning up on your trivia):

But today I’d like to take a look at the musical backdrop to The T.A.M.I. Show.

Top 40 radio circa 1964 was brutally white and commercial. For those of you born too late to remember, until the late 1960s, AM radio was segregated–there were (white) Top 40 stations, (black) Rhythm and Blues stations, (rednecked) Country stations, and in the big cities Classical or even Jazz. FM was exclusively the purview of Classical music until the late 1960s.

As a kid, I was a member of the Caucasion persuasion, so I listened to white pop stations. The black music I was exposed to consisted mostly of black music in white face (Johnny Mathis, Nancy Wilson) or black music diluted till it was a very light shade of ebony (The Supremes).

Heaven only knows how WSAI compiled the Top 40 charts which were the maps of my youth. An amalgam of sales, quirky taste and payola, I’d assume. Let’s take the 1964 Top 50 as an example. The mainstays were no surprise: Beatles (five songs), surf music (three), Motown (three), the Four Seasons (two), the early British Invasion (three) —they were indeed what my friends and I listened to.

But there was always a strong presence of impossible white boxer shorts, Republican-voting ‘hits’ that no one I knew had ever willingly sat through, let along purchased:  ‘Hello, Dolly’, Louis Armstrong (#3); ‘Everybody Loves somebody’, Dean Martin (#10); ‘Dominique’ The Singing Nun, (#11); ‘Java’, Al Hirt.

On the far end of the spectrum, you also had the occasional real R&B hits sneaking in: Rufus Thomas’ ‘Walkin’ the Dog’(#41) and Garnett Mimms’ ‘Cry Baby’ (#50).

What’s the difference between those two and the other black artists on the chart? You got your Motowns, ranging from pop-light whitefaced ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, the Supremes (#15); to smooth, commercial but with James Jamerson’s so-cool ‘Canadian Sunset’ bass   on ‘My Guy’, Mary Wells (#7); all the way to ‘Can I Get a Witness’, Marvin Gaye (#34), displaying some real grit.

And then you have an amazing sundry group of ‘others’:

  • Lenny Welch’s ‘Since I Fell for You‘ (#19) (a 1945 R&B hit on its way to becoming an almost-standard)
  • Ray Charles himself with ‘Busted’ (#40), a Johnny Cash cover! That Ray invented crossover.
  • Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions’ ‘It’s All Right’ (#22), that unique precursor of singer-songwriter soul.
  • Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk on By’ (#48) and The Drifters’ ‘Under the Boardwalk’ (#21), both recorded for white record companies specializing in blacks making music written and produced for them by Jews, aimed at merging market of both young blacks and whites. That might sound like an irrelevantly obscure niche—until you take into account that pop music don’t get no better than these two songs, and there are many other indisputable classics cut from exactly the same cloth.
  • And that’s not including Shirley Ellis’s novelty ‘Nitty Gritty’ or Dusty (what’s the opposite of an Oreo?) Springfield’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’”.

So in 1964, the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, radio was still segregated. But look at the audience of The T.A.M.I. Show. Free tickets had been distributed to local Santa Monica high school students. Look at the shots of the audience during James Brown’s set:  white teenie-boppers screaming at black acts together with black teenie-boppers screaming at white acts. That’s what social change looked like in real life. Well, ‘real life’ for those of us for whom the music was the mainstay of our reality.

The pictures here are all in black and white. But in a very short time, everything would be multicolored.

Of course, the late 60s race riots were just around the corner. But already for us in 1964, it was clear that a change was gonna come.

James, a belated tip of the hat.  I just watched ‘Night Train’ for the umpteenth time – and I still only half believe it.

 

 

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115: Astor Piazzolla, “Tango: Zero Hour”

Posted by jeff on Jun 14, 2018 in Other, Song Of the week

Quiz: For which artist do you need to ask the salesperson, “Where do I find CDs by this guy, in Jazz, Pop or Classical?”

The answer, of course, is Astor Piazzolla, inventor of the New Tango. Most music salespeople won’t have heard of him, especially those in América del Norte. But there are legions of listeners around the globe, not just in his native Argentina, who recognize him as one of the most original and outstanding musical voices of the last hundred years.

Piazzolla reinvented a folk genre (traditional tango) as an art form, not dissimilar from what Duke Ellington did to jazz, what the Beatles did to rock and roll, what Bob Dylan did to folk music. He was a consummate musician on an instrument no one’s heard of (the bandoneon, a clunky accordion with buttons instead of keys), a courageous and stubborn artist of absolute integrity. He managed a long and prolific career, fighting artistic and political criticism from his homeland, constantly experimenting and growing artistically.

He began his musical career playing for disreputable tango bands in chintzy dance joints, then sojourned to American and France and Italy to study jazz and classical composition. He returned to his Argentinean tango roots and invented the Tango Nuevo, a remarkable style of a popular art music demanding the precision of a fugue, the inventiveness of jazz, the courage of 12-tone composition, the passion of the kitschiest of matinee singing, the dexterity of Argentinean football, and the heat of a chili pepper (aka aji puta pario).

Piazolla (1921-1992) was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina to Italian parents. From ages 3-16 he lived in New York City, where he was exposed to Bach and Rachmaninoff (from his Hungarian piano teacher), traditional tango and Gershwin (from his bandoneon teacher, with whom he began studying at nine), and Ellington and Calloway (from the ‘hood).  At 13 he met sex symbol Carlos Gardel, who had made tango into a craze in the US. Astor was so proficient on the bandoneon that Gardel invited him to join his band, but father Ninio deemed the boy too young. Gardel and his band died in a plane crash. “If my father hadn’t been so careful, I’d have been playing the harp instead of the bandoneon.”

For those of you who need reality to be confirmed by Hollywood, here’s Al Pacino dancing to music by Carlos Gardel in “Scent of a Woman”. Here are a couple of professionals in a very, very steamy tango. Here’s Carlos Gardel himself dancing in 1922.

At 16, he returned to Argentina with the family, then two years later moved to Buenos Aires where he began making his mark in a series of traditional tango bands and orchestras. All the while he continued to study American jazz as well as classical music (especially Bartok, Stravinsky and Ravel), piano, theory and (at the urging of pianist Arturo Rubenstein who was living in Buenos Aires) composition with the best teachers Argentina had to offer. His controversial concerto for bandeon and orchestra won him a grant to study in France in 1954, where he studied composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger (teacher of Aaron Copland and Philip Glass). She read through his ‘kilos’ of symphonies and sonatas and said, “It’s very well written. But I can’t find Piazzolla in this.”

He returned to Argentina, formed an octet that treated the sleazy tango as chamber music rather than dance accompaniment. I can’t help but think of other major 20th century artists who left their provincial home, traveled afar to learn High Culture, and returned to their roots to make a career out of reevaluating those folk materials they knew so well – artists such as Marc Chagall, S.Y. Agnon and I.B. Singer, Federico García Lorca, Béla Bartók, a myriad of others.

There’s a saying, “In Argentina everything may change – except the tango.” Well, Astor succeeded in pissing off the public as well as appearing to the politicians as an independent-thinking troublemaker—not a healthy image in Argentina. In 1958 he returned to New York, then later back to Argentina where he formed his first Tango Nuevo quintet. With them and in other formats he collaborated with Borges, Gerry Mulligan and others, wrote symphonies and film scores and electronic music and songs, achieving some commercial success. In the early 1970s, during the reign of Los Generales, he felt it safer to live in Italy. He toured the world and his reputation grew. Back in New York in the 1980s he formed his definitive second Tango Nuevo quintet and made his best recordings, including his favorite, “Tango: Zero Hour.”

Piazzolla imagined la hora cero as the time after midnight, “an hour of absolute end and absolute beginning.” The entire CD is a work of wonder, “cosmopolitan and streetwise, erudite but also passionate, elegant yet tough’. It’s a sound palette you’re unaccustomed to – bandoneon, violin, piano, guitar and bass. Turn off your prejudices for a moment. Listen to this mind-popping marriage of passion, virtuosity and technical precision. Something like the tango itself.  It’s a world unto itself, a unique personal vision that I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I do.

Our Song of The Week is the opening cut, Tanguedia III. It begins with the guys chanting Piazzolla’s formula for Tango Nueva: Tango, tragedia, comedia, kilombo (kilombo means both whorehouse and mess, just like the Arabic ‘bardak’).

For additional listening/viewing edification:

Adios Noninio, his famous elegy for his father

Libertango, live, with Yo Yo Ma sitting in on cello

Oblivion, performed by violinist Gidon Kremer

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

068: Hermeto Pascoal, ‘Santa Catarina’

088: Lizz Wright, ‘Old Man’

 

 

 

 

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116: Van Morrison, ‘Tupelo Honey’

Posted by jeff on Jun 7, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

L to R: Janet, Van Morrison

There’s often a fine line between the inspired and the insipid, between the mystic and the messy, between the portentous and the pretentious, between the sublime and the silly.

Dissected, Van Morrison’s song ‘Tupelo Honey’ hasn’t a single defensible element. The melody is unexceptional. The chord changes are for a Week Two guitar student. The harmonies are all pop pap. The orchestration is tasteful but boilerplate – most of the movement provided by a rhythm piano with two guitars providing independent arpeggios, an organ supplying the sustained chords, a pretty darned good bass hidden back in the mix, and Connie (Modern Jazz Quartet) Kay making a living playing rock drums. Van the Man’s vocal is sincere, engaged, without fireworks. But the lyrics, if you look at them out of context, are just plain embarrassing:

L to R: Jane, Van Morrison

You can take all the tea in china
Put it in a big brown bag for me
Sail right around the seven oceans
Drop it straight into the deep blue sea
She’s as sweet as tupelo honey
She’s an angel of the first degree
She’s as sweet as tupelo honey
Just like honey from the bee

You can’t stop us on the road to freedom
You can’t keep us ’cause our eyes can see

L to R: Moondance, Janet, Van

Men with insight, men in granite
Knights in armor bent on chivalry
She’s as sweet as tupelo honey
She’s an angel of the first degree
She’s as sweet as tupelo honey
Just like honey from the bee

After two verses you get a short standard wailing white soul sax solo. Then in the middle of the song, to crank things up, the band starts playing louder and Van gets into his Sam Cooke-inspired vocal embellishments (Van’s own attribution). Lots of forceful organ/piano/drums, right out of the songbook of The Band (his Woodstock neighbors).

Tupelo tree

That’s the song dissected. But you know what? It’s only a headuphisass critic who would try to pick apart ‘Tupelo Honey’. Because it’s so clearly an inspired organic whole that the best thing a guy could do would be to shut up and take his own personal honey by her hand, pull her close and give her a gentle, loving whirl on the dance floor to one of the most beautiful, romantic recordings ever made.

The whole gescheft isn’t much of a song, really. It’s had surprisingly few covers. The great Dusty Springfield did a respectable job. The very soulful Richie Havens does a pretty fine version. Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan takes a noble stab at it, but it’s more memorable as a gesture than as music. None of them really fly. So why is it that most people I know, just hearing the opening strains of the original, their eyes glaze over and they emit a rapturous “Ahhhhh…”?

Elvis’s humble birthplace, Tupelo, Mississippi

You want some SoTW backstory to this? The album “Tupelo Honey” is from 1971. It was preceded in 1968 by “Astral Weeks” (if you don’t know that, go to your room, put it on loop and don’t come out until you’ve massaged the very quick of your deepest passion). “Astral Weeks” is a unique, incomparable, sublime work of art. It was followed in 1970 by “Moondance”, which is merely a great, unforgettable blue-eyed soul trip. A lot of people got off the Van train at that point. Let me give you a little description of where it went after that. In 1971 he made “His Band and the Street Choir”, pleasant but unessential. Then our “Tupelo Honey”, which is a consistent collection of passionate, sincere, fine songs – the rocking, passionate ‘Wild Night’, prophet-poet Van at his best; the meditative love poem ‘You’re My Woman’, ‘Old Old Woodstock’, nine fine songs in all.  The album arouse out of domestic bliss, a paean to his wife Janet.

Tupelo Honey

Then Van made a string of albums which aren’t as well known as they deserve to be. I’ll admit that I’ve only been really delving into them in the last couple of years. “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (1972), “Hard Nose the Highway” (1973), the live “It’s Too Late to Stop Now…” (1974), and the exquisite “Veedon Fleece” (1974). These albums from 1968-1974 comprise a corpus of works that really is worth experiencing.

Van’s appeal is elusive. He’s visionary, an Irish poet in his heart and soul, transplanted to America. What makes ‘Tupelo Honey’ such a universally appealing expression of unadulterated love? What the heck is the song about?  Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. Tupelo honey is made from the sweet flowers of the tupelo tree, common in that neck of the woods. Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying that “‘Tupelo Honey’ has always existed and that Morrison was merely the vessel and the earthly vehicle for it”. But don’t take Bob’s word for it, or mine. Take Van’s. Take all the tea in Chiny.

If you like this post, you may also enjoy:

038: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

048 Sam Cooke ‘Bring It On Home To Me’

036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

 

 

 

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284: Owen Pallett, ‘Oh Heartland, Up Yours!’

Posted by jeff on Jun 1, 2018 in Other, Rock, Song Of the week

Owen Pallett, ‘Oh Heartland, Up Yours!’

Owen Pallett, ‘E is for Estranged’

Owen Pallett, ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’

Owen Pallett, ‘He Poos Clouds’

Owen Pallett, ‘The Great Elsewhere’

I know many of my subscribers decide whether to read a post or not based on the song/musician being discussed. Which is cool, because we all love our favorites. Me, too.

So I’m often tempted to write about well-known music in order to boost my stats. But back when I conceived of this blog some 10 years ago, I promised myself to follow the music rather than the numbers, and I try really hard to keep promises. So no Taylor Swift this week, darlings. I’m taking you with me instead to yet another road less travelled, one which has brought me great edification and no little puzzlement over the past few weeks.

And now we’re talking about Owen Pallett, born 1979 near Toronto, and he’s the most dazzling artist I’ve encountered in years. Think of Jacob Collier, Sufjan Stevens, Van Dyke Parks and perhaps even a pinch of Nilsson, if those names ring your bells. If not—take a little walk with me.

Jacob Collier because Owen is young, loves to loop, and is endowed with a rare, prodigious musicianship. Sufjan Stevens because he’s young, fun, weird, melodic, and is creating new sounds and ideas often within a pop framework. Nilsson for the beauty of his melodic lines and the virtuoso expressiveness of his voice. Van Dyke Parks (most famous for collaborating with Brian Wilson on “Smile”) because—well, that’s a whole ‘nother story, but here’s Owen’s cover (with symphony orchestra) of Van Dyke’s ‘Palm Desert’ from the legendary 1968 “Song Cycle”.

I hope Van Dyke feels a lot of validation from having so much influence over a brilliant young composer/performer half a century after “Song Cycle” aroused such a deafening silence. I promise a posting in the near future about VDP.

The best label I’ve found for Owen is ‘baroque indie’, but I have only the most tenuous sense of what that means. And that label – a sub-category of a nebulous style – seems to me to diminish Owen’s music, which is grand and fine. I’ll tell you what I am hearing—a brilliant young musician whose deepest roots are classical violin, but who is equally comfortable in composing a quartet for four digital somethings with a rippling drum line and hooks that make my heart skip a beat.

Dazzling. It’s Owen’s own word. I’ve been listening to it in a loop for weeks, and my strongest impression is that wherever you drop the needle (antiquated reference, you kids can ask your grandparents) on any of the four LPs, you’re hearing a rich, fascinating, beautiful mélange of new sounds.

Owen began violin at three, wrote his first modern classical piece at 13, and began solo violin performances at 15. He soon moved to composing for video games, and from there to operas, movie scores, and currently to being the go-to session violinist for lots of indie bands, especially Arcade Fire.

His first two albums, under the name Final Fantasy (“Not one of my top twenty favorite video games”–OP) are almost all violins and vocals. But if you’re thinking Frank Sinatra/Gordon Jenkins, you’re way off base. Eight of the ten songs are said to refer to the schools of magic in Dungeons & Dragons.

Clouds

Check out for example the title cut from the album “He Poos Clouds”, which won the Polaris (Canadian Grammy) for best album of 2006. Or ‘This Lamb Sells Condos’.

My favorite is the album “Heartland” (2010, also a Polaris winner), where the strings join in a symphonic circustry of sounds.

Check out for example ‘E is for Estranged’. Much of Owen’s music is based on looping the violin. Here’s a pretty amazing video of how he does that.  And here’s the studio version.

It begins with a piano-ized keyboard with electronic haze behind. Then there’s a dialog between a pianoish instrument and a violinish one. Is it a processed violin? A violinized synthetizer? Who knows? Who cares? Well, I care because the sound is so damned interesting. But by the accompaniment in the third verse, you all that wrist action, and you know its Owen multitracked on the old cat gut. I think.

And then it grows into a symphony, an organic symphonic instrumentation, the strings written not by George Martin but by The Boys themselves, if you know what I mean. And it’s a really cool song. You can dance to it (well, waltz—it’s in ¾). I’ll give it a 12.

There’s got to be a difference between an outside (older) producer/arranger adding strings to the song of a scruffy young artist who grew up on Chuck Berry on the one hand, and instrumentation including strings written by a scruffy young artist who grew up on Brahms, Gershwin and Phillip Glass.

I don’t want to call it baroque indie. I want to call it symphonic rock.

Check out ‘The Great Elsewhere’. Check out ‘Lewis Takes Action’. Check out ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’.  Check out our Song of The Week ‘Oh Heartland, Up Yours!’.

Owen Pallett’s music enthralls me. No ifsandsorbuts. But.

Owen is gay. “As far as whether the music I make is gay or queer, yeah, it comes from the fact that I’m gay, but that doesn’t mean I’m making music about it.” Well, just mildly disingenuous there, Owen. Most of the content of Owen’s music and the visuals of his videos revolve around homoeroticism. It’s not just his predilection, it’s his agenda.

I personally believe that sexual freedom and good taste can sometimes clash. I believe in people practicing whatever floats their boats–behind closed doors. Sex can be a slippery slope in art. It’s really hard to make it interesting. There just aren’t that many variables. Not desire—that’s a staple, bring it on! But the physical implications of said desire are often better left behind those closed doors.

His lyrics are no less striking than his compositions or his instrumentations or his performances.  It seems to me—and I would have liked a couple of weeks more work on this to solidify this impression–that his words work better as poetry than as lyrics.

This is something very unusual. Dylan is a lyricist, not a poet. Leonard Cohen straddled the fence in the beginning, but eventually cast his lot with songwriting.  Owen Pallett’s words are the intelligent, challenging, focused constructs of heightened language that distinguish (in my mind) lyrics from poetry. Let’s put it this way: I can’t think of a single other songwriter about whom I would say ‘his lyrics are really poems’. I’ll go further. I think they work better as poems than as lyrics.

I did my homework on the words below, references supplied for your reading edification. Don’t mean I understand the text now. But I recognize that they’re strong words, fashioned with intelligence and wit and craftsmanship. As I said, I wish he’d expand his concerns beyond his own private sexual issues, which also here seem to be at the center of things, albeit less blatantly than in other songs.

But the music? Gosh, what dazzlement. As he writes in ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’ (I wouldn’t have minded if he left it on), “My senses are bedazzled by the parallax of the road”. ‘Parallax’ means the change in appearance of an object when viewed from different perspectives. It’s also commonly known (among millennial geeks) as the method of scrolling in which the background of a web page moves at a slower rate to the foreground, creating a 3D effect.

But as I freely admitted in last week’s SoTW, when it comes to understanding video gaming and 21st century sexualism, I’m Dylan’s Mr Jones. But the music? I sure do get that music.

The stars collected
Each world accounted for
Freed all the children
Seems there is nothing more

If I only had a rowboat I would row it up to heaven
And if heaven will not have me I would take the other option
I will seek out my own satisfaction

From the wight1 lying in the barrow
To the priest with his broken arrows
There’s a method to the madness
They will feign an expression of sadness
A concatenation2 of locusts
And the farmers are losing their focus
On the pitch of the Avenroe3 grasses
I will sing, sing, sing to the masses
Oh Heartland, up yours!

The hollow voice of the 14th century
Too much assumption to be taken seriously

Oh, you wrote me like a Disney kid, in cut-offs and a beater4
With a feathered fringe it doesn’t suit a simoniac5 breeder
Doesn’t work, doesn’t fly, doesn’t handle

From the wight lying in the barrow…

My homeland
I will not sing your praises here

1A fellow

2A series of connected events

3A fictional place name

4A tight tank top worn by men showing off their body, à la Stanley Kowalski, apparently from ‘wife-beater’

5Buying privilege or pardon from the church

 

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