Friday, December 28, 2007
Jill Scott grew up in the city of brotherly love, where she had, by her own account, a happy childhood. In the field of music that is often a handicap. Music is not unlike method acting. You need to be able to draw on your own experience to make the songs of heartbreak and yearning sound convincing. As much as its a cliché that artists have to suffer in order to create, it is almost scientific fact that artists with a monkey on their back, or carrying a heavy load, are the ones that usually deliver the goods. Jill Scott always struck me as somewhat of a exception on this rule. Jill Scott started out as a spoken word artist, a poet at heart. Ruthlessly intelligent, Jill Scott has always had the ability to whip words in the shape she needed them to be. Her lyrics floated somewhere between sharp analyzes of her relations to people, a strong sense of her womanhood and an almost retro sense of Black pride. To top it of, Scott has that kind of gentle voice that is capable of lashing out at unsuspected moments, giving her often too relaxing beats an edge they sorely need. Jill Scott is one of those artists cut and tailored for the Nu-Soul genre that needs to get its conviction out of lyrics and a voice to translate them.
"The Real Thing: Words and Sounds, Vol. 3" is one of those albums that doesn't disappoint but doesn't really thrill either. Most of the album again conjures up images of soft cushions, silky sheets, dimmed candle candle light and none to offensive rocking hips. Nu-Soul seems ever stuck in foreplay. Only on, what has apparently been the single, "Hate On Me", things heat up a little. Jill has a chip on her shoulder, a left over from a failed relationship, and makes it known. It's the third track in, getting your hopes up after hearing all this naked raging emotion. Unfortunately the CD settles back in its all too comfortable groove after that. Much of the album deals with broken relationships, the lyrics hold a lot of potential, but it never amounts to anything really interesting. The unsuspecting listener can slide back in his or her comfortable cushion and order another Mojito without his slumber being disturbed. The unsuspecting listener might just play this album to seduce his new girlfriend, hoping to get some action on a record that is built on heartache. Jill has a lot of potential, but what is lacking so far is let it all hang out. Anybody who's seen her in concert knows she can, so Jill, please get to it.
The British Invasion, kicked off by the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, gave R&R its balls back. An entire tilde wave of acts inspired by the sound of early R&R by Sun in Memphis, the inner city Blues from Chess records in Chicago and the upcoming Motown sound of young America flooded the US charts. Among those acts were many of Springsteen's pronounced influences. From the Rolling Stones to the Kinks, from the Yardbirds to the Who, from the Zombies to Manfred Mann, the young Springsteen sucked it all in. Barely a year after the invasion found its way to the US Springsteen was playing guitar live on stage in his first band the Castiles. Somewhere in June 1964 "Twist and Shout" was the first song Bruce performed at an audition for the band formed by Tex Vinyard, who would promptly give him a spot in the line up. Soon after that the Castiles would start playing the Jersey shore. The R&R that was spawned from the British invasion, along with Bob Dylan, would prove to be the main ingredient for Bruce's early musical education. The British invasion would soon kick start the American Garage or Frat Rock scene, Springsteen was part of that and it would form his definition of R&R and instill in him an importance of having a band. The power blues of Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds and Cream would prompt Springsteen to shortly experiment with the genre himself in bands like Steel Mill before settling back into classic R&R and British Invasion music with the E-Street Band.
Shortly after breaking through with "Born to Run" Springsteen was confronted with the uglier side of the R&R industry. The recording of the album had hardly been a breeze and Springsteen had at first hated the results. Maybe it was fear of failing acting up, what else was he going to do but be a R&R star. On top of that Springsteen had to deal with the draw back of the hype that was created around him. Although he wanted to make it big, I don't think Springsteen had ever considered what that would mean, the hassle that would bring with it. Springsteen was uncomfortable with the adoration, going from a small town kid with a R&R band enjoying moderate success on the Jersey shore to the messiah of R&R is not an easy transition to make. His manager Mike Appel had filed suit when he saw his young protégé slip from his control with Rock critic Jon Landau now in the picture as producer. As a result Springsteen could not return to the studio. Instead he was forced to go back on the road after the emotionally exhausting "Born To Run" tour to gain some revenues to pay for his legal battles with Appel.
During what would be called the "Chicken Scratch Tour" Bruce's frustration and disillusion would increasingly start floating to the surface. Some performances on this tour would proof to be his most personal. Although Springsteen threw some new self penned material into the mix, like the "Thunderroad" negative "The Promise", some songs of Eric Burdon's the Animals proved to be a better vehicle. The Animals had first broken the charts with Josh White's "House Of The Rising Sun". Although Both Bob Dylan and Nina Simone would cover the song with success before the Animals, Burdon's dark, brooding and intense vocal made their version the one that mattered. The Animals set themselves apart in the whole British Invasion by heavily relying on keyboards instead of guitars, add to that Burdon's uninhibited baring of the Soul the attraction for Springsteen is easy to see. The Chicken scratch tour would feature two songs made popular by the Animals. First there was Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill penned "We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place". Originally this song was intended as the follow up for the Righteous Brother's immortal smash "You've Lost That Loving Feeling", to be produced by Phil Spector. Through the intervention of the Animals manager Allen Klein the song found a much better voice with Eric Burdon. The song quickly grew out to be an anthem for soldiers serving in Vietnam and for small time teens wanting escape, a sort of prototype "Born to Run". Throughout his career Springsteen performed the song a handful of times, reflecting both interpretations.
The second song Springsteen would perform was the chilling "It's My Life". Springsteen would stretch out the three minute record to a full blown fifteen minutes starting with a long spoken intro in which he revealed much of his troubled relation with his father. The best recorded performance, on bootleg that is, in my opinion the November 4th 1976 version performed at the Palladium in New York (download here). With a subdued arrangement Springsteen would describe the confrontations he would have with his father in the kitchen of their house. The piercing guitar backed with the haunting glockenspiel, saxophone and cymbals would add to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the intro. Springsteen sets the scene perfectly, we can see his old man hunched at the kitchen table, over the empty cans of beer and his cigarettes. We can feel the apprehension Springsteen must have felt entering that kitchen, dreading yet another confrontation. Here we see a young Springsteen trapped in his relation with his dad, feeling suffocated by the small town he was growing up in, scared to death he'll end up like his old man with his dreams broken. R&R was Springsteen's means of taking control, of acting out his dreams and fantasies. And as "It's My Life" moves into Springsteen's venomous reading of the song, spitting out the chorus "It's my life and I'll do what I want", its not just his father anymore he's shouting at. Bruce is also directing his frustration at Appel, who's at that moment threatening to take away his dreams and means of escape.
When the lawsuit settled Springsteen was free to record "Darkness On The Edge Of Town". The direction he took in that spoken intro of "It's My Life" would prove to be instrumental for large parts of that album. The venom of that intro and song can be found back in "Badlands", a song decidedly more confrontational than "Born To Run". The latter was a statement, with the second we find Springsteen spitting in the face of his background and maybe even Appel. It's there in his affirmation of being a man in "Promised Land". More pronounced "It's My Life" echoes in "Adam Raised a Cain", here the song and intro have simmered to adolescence angst of biblical proportions. But the traces are found in "Factory" as well. Nowhere near as venomous as the first examples "Factory" is a song of a much more reflective nature. "Factory" might be one of the key tracks in his career. It is where Springsteen let go of the battle with his father for the first time and took an effort to see where his old man was coming from. Through understanding Douglas Springsteen he got a look into the lives of working class America, a look into the lives who hadn't had the means to escape it. Through his father he became to understand what moved that segment of America better, allowing him to write about them and for them with more intelligence and authority in the years to come.
"House Of The Rising Sun" - Josh White Jr.
"We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place" - The Animals
"It's My Life" - Bruce Springsteen
"The Promise" - Bruce Springsteen
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Through out his career Johnny Cash has show a sensibility to the dark side of human nature up to the point where he could make his character sound real when he sang "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die" in his infamous "Folsom Prison Blues". Cash never did shy away from controversy, always ready to speak his mind, hardly ever considering the sensibilities of the day. It is that grim side of human nature that Cash was able to translate so well to song that Snoop Dogg finds his common ground. The thug life, or the outlaw, life has been a theme that both artists regularly put on wax. Both artists gained a lot of credibility that way amongst the outcasts of society, even though Cash never actually shot a man, you could sense he was the real deal. Johnny Cash always had a dark side to him that he was struggling to contain, part of what made his music so human. Something the convicts of Folsom and San Quentin tapped into when he played those prisons. Judging from the reaction of the crowd and the mini documentary the BBC shot at San Quentin, the convicts could relate to Cash in more than just a superficial way. Snoop Dogg's impressive list of confrontations with the law and his self confessed pimping in a Rolling Stone interview a year back took away all doubt about his credibility. Snoop was rhyming and living the Gangsta life. Both artists share a bluntness about the grim side but that is possibly where the comparison stops. Even though Cash often played the prisons through out his career, he never actually did time like Snoop did, not counting county jail.
The main difference between Cash and Snoop is struggle, or the lack there off. Cash may have sung of drug abuse in "Cocaine Blues", he may have sung of spouse abuse and even murder in "Delia's Gone" or "Kate" and may have sung of violence and prison, his music always had a highly redemptive and even moralizing core the Gangsta life glorifying Snoop often misses. On Snoop Dogg's records the Gangsta life seems something to aspire to. Snoop more than once relished in the fact that he was/is a pimp, a hustler, a pornographer, even hinting at his capacity to be a murderer without apology. Though it is true that the down side of the Gangsta life is featured more than once in his rhymes and his lyrics sometimes borderline parodies of the life, the glorification has remained firmly in the foreground through out his career. Snoop Dogg may have claimed to have given up on the life and professed to finding God as a new moral compass, his music doesn't breathe it. Although he is active in various projects to offer the ghetto youth an alternative to the life at the same time Snoop continues to glorify it because that is where the green is.
So who is mister Snoop kidding when he claims that Johnny Cash is Gangsta. Mainly himself I believe. I wonder if Snoop has the eye and ear to see the redemptive side of Johnny Cash's music. If Snoop Dogg owns the "Live At San Quentin" album, I presume he does if he plans on covering "Boy Named Sue", he can hardly escape the highly moralistic and redemptive qualities of that album. He can hardly escape that Johnny Cash acknowledged the dark sides of his character yet struggled not to be consumed by it. Cash's music was ever humble, infused with a sense of shame that undercut the machismo of shooting a man in Reno. Cash balanced out his stories of drug abuse and violence with songs as "I Walk The Line" on the redemptive power of love or with Gospel such as "(there will be) Peace In The Valley". Cash underscored his his struggle to become a better man, never relished or glorified the mean streak that his character had. That's why Cash could sing "The Beast In Me" on the Rick Rubin produced "American Recordings" and make it sound as convincing as when he shot Kate or Delia. For Cash these tales were metaphors for the human struggle between good and evil, Cash simply acknowledged that we all will sometimes stumble and fall. The question for the man in black was how do we pick ourselves up.
I can only hope that Snoop Dogg plans on giving his work the depth Johnny Cash's had, that he's planning to create an album that is an honest account of the questions and realities the ghetto life brings. The man's work would benefit enormously if he's bare his Soul and tries to make an album that shows his own personal struggles, shows how he came to terms with his pimping and hustling, or is trying to. But the planned album title "Ego Trippin'" somehow doesn't bode well on that account. I'll withhold my judgement until I actually hear his cover of Johnny Cash, but seeing how he, and fellow Gangsta 50 Cents, released a video sporting women on a leash, my hopes are down. Snoop doing Cash can only become a parody of the latter.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
A quick entry on this Christmas morning as sad news came to my attention last night, Oscar Peterson passed away at the age of 82 in his home of Toronto Canada. Peterson is one of those piano players who was instrumental in popularizing Jazz, and I do mean Jazz with a capital J. Peterson didn't bring you any of that diluted background wall paper drivel that is sometimes called Jazz. Peterson was the real deal, one of the few original Jazz giants still walking around. Like Jazz legends Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Peterson came up at the dawn of Bop. An approach to Jazz that would revolutionize the genre, lightening fast and highly improvised with a heavy doses of Swing. Cause it don't mean a thing if it aint.
Born August 15th, 1925 Oscar Peterson grew up in Little Burgundy, Montreal. An African American neighborhood where many had found refuge for the harsh and segregated realities of the United States. Oscar first touch down on the keys at the age of five, barely able to walk straight he began on his road to greatness. At seven tuberculosis made it so that his only focus was the piano as the illness isolated him from the world. From Canadian radio Oscar would soon make the jump to Jazz Mekka NY, or should I say Harlem. He made his first recordings as a band leader in 1945, near the end of World War II. No mean feat for a twenty year old in a city with such stiff competition. Harlem truly was the place that drew the greatest and you'd better have your shit together if you were going for the scrapple from the Apple. Inspired by Art Tatum and later Nat King Cole, Oscar was more than ready, The Brown Bomber of Boogie Woogie had developed his own style when others were still stretching their fingers reaching for that chord.
His distinct rollicking and versatile yet accessible style would soon land him in a recording deal with Verve, one of Jazz's greatest labels. Although Oscar was part of the same movement as Bird and Gillespie he was never quite the ground breaking artist, more the great translator and communicator of Jazz. Oscar was as much at home in small combo's of his own as he was in Count Basie's big band. Oscar was a welcome player on the scene, working with almost anybody who was somebody throughout his career. His name pops up on session dates from Billie Holiday to Stan Getz, from Benny Carter to Anita O'day. In those sessions Oscar had the talent to coach the tune, make it tangible through his licks on the piano, subtle where he needed to be, mind blowing with fingers rolling high speed down the keys if asked for. Peterson was as much Jazz's great show man as he was dedicated to the art form. That ability made for Oscar being key in breaking Jazz to a much wider audience and a talent of who's likes we're not likely to see anytime soon again.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
With this Ry Cooder produced album Mavis really revived her career. Ry's approach is much the same as the Joe Henry productions on Solomon Burke and Bettye Lavette, sober yet penetrating. I was pleasantly surprised at how well Mavis' voice had aged. Her singing might not be as full as it was in her prime days, but she never lost any of her emotional strength. In an decade where civil liberties have come increasingly under pressure an album that revokes the civil rights struggle of the sixties, the time of segregation and Vietnam, is much needed. A civil rights anthem like "Eyes On The Prize" suddenly felt shockingly timeless.
2) The Arctic Monkeys - Your Worst Favorite Nightmare
It is very seldom these days that a band comes out with a follow up to their debut album that is actually stronger. The Arctic Monkeys were one of the few bands out there who had been able to use the Internet to their advantage, creating much of their own hype. Where bands as Franz Ferdinand or the Kaiser Chiefs failed to impress with their second outing the Monkeys came out rocking in full force, playing better and writing better than they had done before. The Monkeys may just be the best thing that has happened to R&R in a long time.
3) Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Baby 81
After going to the roots of American music on "Howl" two years ago the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club felt it was time to plug in again. On "Baby 81" the band infuses the Blues and Folk sensibilities they had tapped into with "Howl" with a heavy dose of R&R that harks back to the hey days of the Rock Super Groups without sounding dated. This is what a Rock record should sound like, raw, sexy and rough.
4) The Detroit Cobras - Tied & True
Garage rockers the Detroit Cobras seem to have found their groove on this one. With help from Greg Cartwright from the Reigning Sound the Cobras have delivered and album that sounds more accomplished and subtly produced than anything they've ever done. As usual the Cobras manage to dig up some great R&B nuggets and transform them into superb Garage Soul with the help of Rachel's husky and oh so sexy voice. The Cobras make great albums for you to do a little digging in stacks of 45s as well, while maintaining a great sense of originality.
"As Long As I Have You"
5) Bettye Lavette - The Scene Of The Crime
After Bettye's superb come back just two years ago with "I've Got My Own Hell To Raise", I was very pleased to see her do a second album for Anti-records. This time Bettye was backed by the Drive By Truckers, a fine band in their own right, with the help of legendary Spooner Oldham. To top it off the album was recorded in the legendary Muscle Shoals studio. That doesn't mean that the album has a retro sound though. The band proves to be a rough and gruff backing, underscoring the hard knocks of life that just seem to ooze out of every syllable that escapes Bettye's voice.
6)Nathaniel Mayer - Why Don't You Give It To Me
Nathaniel's new album might not give him the success he so much graves but it might just give him what he needs right now. The fuzzy Garage guitars seem to be the perfect backing for his ragged and beaten voice. Nathaniel's years have not been kind to him, seeing him on stage you'd give him at least 20 years over the 61 he has under his belt. It is the stark honesty of this album that makes it one of 2007's best. Nathaniel doesn't try and hide his decline yet displays it for the world to see, enjoying every second of it. "Better than getting pussy" he admitted to me earlier this year.
7) Bruce Springsteen - Live in Dublin
Maybe an odd choice in the year where Springsteen his long awaited new album with the E-Street Band, "Magic". But that album was somewhat disappointing in my book, lacking the cinematic songwriting he so excelled in on past albums. "Live in Dublin" is a registration of the tour he did a year back with a different band, doing the songs of Pete Seeger and covering much of America's traditional music in the process. Bruce and the Sessions Band mixed it up in a way that might offend the purist lovers of folk music but in my mind the approach sounded quite revolutionary. Everything from New Orleans to Memphis, from Zydeco to Blue Grass got mashed together in that great American melting pot. The results, in which he reworked much of his own material, was a stellar and surprisingly fresh show.
8)Grinderman - Grinderman
2007 was also the year that Nick Cave found his Rock voice back with a new band. Nick Cave had been moving more and more to grim and moody balladry on his solo albums. Although the results were often moving, sometimes no more than a notch away from true brilliance, Nick always had a dangerous and aggressive side to him that is best expressed in R&R. "Grinderman", oozing with a perverse sexuality, has got that in spades. You'd almost wish Cave would abandon his solo projects and stick with his new guns. Quite a few year in his career it is jaw dropping to hear him still being so inspired and creative.
9) The Hives - The Black and White Album
The Hives returned in full glory this year. You think they might have been humbled when their last album turned out to be somewhat of a dud, yet the Hives continue to make themselves bigger than they are. Delightful R&R bravura, one of the best "Garage" albums of this year. The Hives managed to work with unlikely producers such as The Neptunes yet managed to remain one of the most vicious R&R acts in the business. No small feat.
10) Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
Finally, with Wino Winehouse getting all the praise, the band that made her success possible. Fronted by one of Soul's greatest vocalist the Dap-Kings hark back to Soul's golden age with just enough of a modern edge to prevent it from becoming a nostalgia act. Sharon Jones has a voice that reminds you of Aretha Franklin with a little bit of Tina Turner thrown in, propelled by uncut James Brown Funk with a Motown Beat, greased of course with some honest to God Stax gravy. Forget Wino, this is the album you want.
Friday, December 21, 2007
Of all the R&R artists present in Springsteen's ground breaking album, Roy Orbison might be the one that is most pronounced. Even if it is only because Roy makes it into the album's opener "Thunder Road". But when Springsteen mumbles the line "Roy Orbison's singing for the lonely, hey that's me and I want you only" does a little more than just provide a superficial link to the Big O's work. Springsteen places the album where he needs it to be, smack dab in the middle of R&R's glory days of the late fifties and the early sixties. A time when radio's reign was supreme and offered you an ear into the heart of American music, the very radio that stood in Adele Springsteen's kitchen and gave him his first sense of R&R and a little more. Aside from the burgeoning R&R industry, Radio in the fifties and the early sixties offered you an ear to the great Pop hits of the day. In the fifties it wasn't R&R that dominated the airwaves it was Sinatra's coy voice, Nat King Cole's syrupy delivery, Perry Como's crooning and Julie London crying a river. Roy Orbison was among those artists that would combine R&R's sexual energy with the finesse of the Pop records of the day. Along with Lieber & Stoller and their protogé Phil Spector, Roy Orbison was one of the first who would make R&R into a form of high culture. With Roy the paradox of R&R was born, the no nonsense common man's great art of R&R. Two things that seemingly didn't gel together all that easy. But maybe Steve van Zandt recently explained it best when he called "R&R the great equalizer", maybe the only art form where races, classes and genders find common ground. R&R certainly democratized art, with the genre's simply chords and straight forward word play, art was suddenly within reach of anybody willing to master a few rudimentary chords on a guitar. Of course Roy Orbison's operatic song writing went a little beyond those basic chords.
In his Springsteen Biography Dave Marsh at one point quotes the lines "Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight, Only the lonely know this feeling ain't right" as the introduction to a new chaper. Curiously enough Marsh doesn't go into how seminal those lines seem to be for Springsteen's perception on himself. Springsteen who considered himself an outsider, who was seen as weird in college, the kid unable to fit in, the boy sent home for pissing in his desk, the adolescent constantly at odds with his father. "Only the Lonely" indeed. Springsteen himself must have known that feeling ain't right. Aside from those lines the parallels between Springsteen and those lines the comparison between the Big O and the Boss' background are a little more than just superficial. Roy Kelton Orbison was born on April 23, 1936 at 3:30 pm, in Vernon, Texas. Vernon made the small town where Springsteen grew up, Freehold New Jersey, look like a metropolitan area. Like Springsteen, Roy got grabbed by the spirit of American Music at an early age when his father bought him a guitar at six. Of course R&R didn't exist at the time but Orbison made his first careful strides in that direction by winning a talent show performing "Jole Blon ", one of those hill billy R&R prototypes. Roy would immerse himself in anything radio had to offer from Country to the string laden Pop classics of the day. By the time Roy recorded "Ooby Dooby" for the legendary Sun records he was an as unlikely R&R as Springsteen would be in his early career. Roy Orbison was the negative of R&R's machismo radiated by the likes of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, also signed at Sun. Although Springsteen's image these days is marred by beefy pumped up arms at the time Springsteen embarked on his most ambitious album to date, "Born to Run, he was nothing more but a scrawny punk. With his two first albums a dud and eager to bust loose like Orbison once had when he released "Only the Lonely", as much of a fusion of R&R and Pop radio as "Born to Run" would turn out to be.
By the time Springsteen tapped in on his early influences such as Orbison, Elvis and Spector, all three of them were sliding into R&R limbo, becoming curiosities from a long forgotten age. "Born to Run" was recorded in a time when the artistic side of R&R had become snobbish yet tame. Folk "rockers " and jam bands with their intellectual aura ruled the day. Although Springsteen had dabbled in such musical forms himself during a short solo stint before getting signed at Colombia and with his Cream-like "super group" Steel Mill, this wasn't the direction Springsteen was going to take. His small town anxieties were much better captured in those heroes of R&R's golden days when R&R's main objective seemed girls, cars and escape. The holy trinity captured in the album's title track. As such "Born to Run" would become laden with the classic riffs from Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues", Duane Eddie's "Rebel Rouser", Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and most noatably Bo Diddley's "Mona". The album winked at the classic studios as well with the Stax like horn lines of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" or Max Weinberg's Motown like drum approach. "Born to Run" had the grand ambition of capturing R&R history in little under 40 minutes.
For the albums production Bruce turned to Phil Spector for inspiration, creating layer after layer in a painstakingly recording process. Spector ultimately would become as much of an influence on the album as Roy Orbison was, maybe even more. In a sense Spector and Orbison were of the same breed, none too attractive R&R geniuses with a similar operatic approach to the genre. As Orbison, Phil had infused his brand of R&R with the theatrics of Wagner and the Pop sensibilities of Sinatra ( a little less recognized influence on Springsteen as well). Of course Springsteen hardly had the means Spector had to its disposal, brimming with ideas, hanging on a thread with the record company and no real studio experience to speak of Bruce recorded the title track in between tour dates in 1974. The many mixes of the song available on bootlegs (download here) with added strings and whole choirs stand a testimony of the singles exhausting sessions. An advance copy was released in November '74, the actual album being almost a year away from that date. Although the lyrics are an obvious Orbison throwback, Bruce had infused the song with his own majesty. "Born to Run" with its runaway American dreams, chrome wheel, fuel injected motor cycles, towns that rip the bones from your back was a R&R opera of adolescent frustration and big dreams struggling to be contained in four and a half minutes. The song is layered with Spector like glockenspiels, multiple guitar lines, a relentless throbbing base and ferociously pounding drums to keep it in check. How much Springsteen was indebted to Spector became apparent when he performed with Ronnie Spector in 1976 on stage, providing the perfect wall of sound backdrop for her with the E-Street Band and the Miami Horns (download that show here).
"Born to Run" would be the epic from which both the album and Springsteen's career would slowly unfold. The earlier mentioned February Main Point broadcast now gives us a look at how far the album was from being finished with "Born to Run" already riding the airwaves. "Thunder Road"was still called "Wings For Wheels" with Mary still being Angelyna, "She's the One" still had much of the lyrics that would ultimately go to "Backstreets" and "Jungle Land" was nowhere near as the impressive epic it would become. Springsteen's wordy rants still were in much need to be condensed to R&R's essentials. The creative process got an unsuspected boost when drummer Ernest 'Boom' Carter and keyboard player David Sancious left to pursue solo careers and were replaced with Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan respectively. While David Sancious had been instrumental in creating Springsteen's somewhat jazzy R&R beat poet image and 'Boom' had temporarily infused that image with his Jazz licks when Bruce had to sack the unpredictable first E-Street drummer Vini 'Mad Dog' Lopez, the "Born to Run" album needed a more straight forward approach with a grand feel. Max's relentless pounding and Roy's graceful piano lines proved perfect for that. Aided by Landau at the production reigns, much to the dismay of his then manager Mike Appel, Springsteen was able to bring the album to a good end.
"[I was] listened to Roy Orbison a lot doing this record" admitted some tow years back when he performed "Thunder Road" for the VH1 Storytellers broadcast. Orbison's mini epics might just have been what Springsteen needed to start trimming his lyrics, trying to get back to the essence of R&R, trying to recapture those three minute records. If Roy Orbison was able to tell his grand stories of anxiety, heartbreak and desire over the course of the A-side of a 45, so was Springsteen. Springsteen slowly started stripping his lyrics creating a that cinematic feel to them would become his trademark throughout the rest of his career when the process started with "Born to Run" would continue. Stripping the lyrics until they reach that bare essence they held on the Nebraska album. It is no coincidence that Springsteen was inspired by B-movies for the album, albeit only the poster of Robert Mitchum's movie for "Thunder Road". Film imagery provided the necessary back drop to which Springsteen would start to mold his songs. The moving pictures are present through the album from Mary dancing like a vision as the screen door slams, to the film noir of "Meeting Across the River" or kids who flash guitars just like switch-blades in "Jungle Land".
Roy Orbison provided Springsteen with the approach and inspiration he need to get his career off the ground. Bruce needed the Big O to fulfill the promise of R&R captured in "Born to Run". Without Roy the album might never have become the classic it is today. Ironically by the time "Born to Run" hit the market the record buying public had forgotten about the Big O as they embraced his successor. Springsteen payed his debt in part when he was part of "The Black and White Night" TV special that helped revive Roy Orbison's career. Something that might not even have been possible if performers like Springsteen hadn't saved R&R from its own pretenses and brought it back to the every man's art form Orbison had molded it into.
"Rebel Rouser" - Duane Eddie
"Summertime Blues" - Eddie Cochran
"Mona (I Need You Baby)" - Bo Diddley
"Walking In The Rain" - Ronnie Spector & the E-Street Band (live)
"Born To Run (alternate take)" - Bruce Springsteen
"Wings For Wheels" - Bruce Springsteen (live)
Sunday, December 16, 2007
The first Bob Dylan single Bruce heard was "Like a Rolling Stone", allegedly over the car stereo while riding with his mother. Springsteen was blown away by this voice from a man that according to his mother couldn't sing. Bruce knew different and ran out to buy the "Highway 61" album. It might be the tittle track to this album that arguably got to be more important over the years than the "Like a Rolling Stone" single release. "Like a Rolling Stone" was released in 1965, a little over a year after Springsteen's interest in R&R was rekindled by the Beatles. Bob's song gave him a totally new perspective on what R&R could be. Like so many other artists Springsteen suddenly realized that R&R could be an intelligent yet young and rebellious art form. The former folkie Dylan took R&R to a next level by plugging in, much to the dismay of his early fans. "Like a Rolling Stone" shot up in the charts to #2, stopped only by the Beatles "Help". Those two songs played back to back seem light years apart. Though it was little over a year since the British invasion had started the early singles of the Beatles suddenly seemed like relics from a long ago past.
Dylan would become an integral part of Springsteen's career for better and for worse Seven years after Dylan released "Highway 61" Bruce found himself auditioning for John Hammond. His bold and abrasive, some might even say offensive, manager Mike Appel had arranged the audition by a fair amount of hyping. It was in Appel's hype that Bruce's moniker as the next Dylan was born. A label that would hunt him for much of his early career. That label got enforced by John Hammond's history with Dylan, being the man who discovered the elusive word smith. Springsteen's own Dylanesque dense song writing didn't help either. Despite Appel's off putting ranting and raving Hammond saw a much better rounded artist in Springsteen than he had seen in Dylan when he auditioned the latter. Appel had challenged Hammond by snapping "So you're the guy who discovered Bob Dylan huh, well we want to find out if that was luck or if you really got ears". Springsteen played him "It's Hard To Be a Saint (in the city)" and "Growing Up". Hammond was impressed by what he heard and Bruce got signed as a folk artist even though he had been playing in R&R bands all this time. Years later Bruce admitted in Mojo magazine interview "it was a big, big day for me. I was 22 and come up on the bus with an acoustic guitar with no case which I'd borrowed from the drummer of the Castilles. I felt I'd written some good songs and this was my shot. I had nothing to lose and this was like the beginning of something".
Because of Bruce being signed as a folkie and him not yet knowing how to handle himself his quickly recorded debut "Greetings From Asbury Park" (sessions for the album only took two weeks) came out a little uneven. Even though critics raved, quick to slap the Dylan stamp on him, it was apparent from the get go that Bruce was something else, an artist in his own right. His wordy rants were much more cohesive and direct than Dylan's misty word play. Where Dylan would remain elusive, a trickster, through out his career, Springsteen immediately gave you a sense of himself. The song writing on Bruce's debut was much more autobiographical than Dylan's work would ever be, infused with the ballsy attitude that marked R&R. Springsteen's music was more akin to the artists who had traveled the Highway 61 than the album Bob Dylan created. Highway 61 was were Ike Turner wrote his first R&R song about an Oldsmobile "Rocket 88". Highway 61 was the route that future R&R stars such as Chuck Berry would take up North from Louisiana. Highway 61 was an integral part of R&R history long before Dylan put it into song. As such "Greetings" came out more as an album where Dylan and Berry collided. Bruce was cocky when he belted out lines as "I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra", but never as arrogant like Dylan could be. Springsteen's debut dealt with growing up, R&R being his weapon to battle the growing pains.
The music on "Greetings" and his much more matured follow up "The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle", bore a much stronger resemblance to Van Morrisons early solo records. Van's music was much more steeped in the same R&B Springsteen would tap in to than Dylan ever was. Though Dylan's "High Way 61" may have been the reason why Van left his R&B group Them to pursue a solo career and record the mystic "Astral Weeks". We know for certain that Bruce was a big fan of Them's "Gloria", which he often used in the seventies as an intro to "She's The One". Them was closer to home for Springsteen than Dylan. Them was a classic R&R band, much easier to identify to than the mysterious Dylan. Early in '74 Bruce even tried to distance himself from Dylan by claiming in an interview with Crawdaddy, "There was only a short period of time when I related, there was only that period where he was important to me, you know, when he was giving me what I needed. That's it". Listen to either "Greetings" or "The Wild" now and Van Morrison's "His Band and the Street Choir" seems a much more apt comparison than "Highway 61". I find it telling that Springsteen chose to cover a more Pop oriented song from Dylan in his set around that time. When Bruce was to play a radio broad casted show on February 5th 1975 (download the show here)he didn't pick "Highway '61" but stuck with Dylan's Pop gem "I Want You".
It wasn't until Springsteen managed to shake his next Dylan moniker by releasing his Roy Orbison and Phil Spector inspired masterpiece "Born to Run" he revisited "Highway 61" on his next album "Darkness On The Edge Of Town". The biblical imagery in "Adam Raised a Cain" and "promised Land" couldn't have come from anywhere else than the title song of Dylan's ground breaking album. Bruce was blazing down Thunderroad into that promised land, escaping his small town roots. His escape needed the bigger imagery of Dylan. By this point in his career Bruce could confidently tap into Dylan's type of imagery, yet give it his own distinctive stamp. The Dylan connection would only become more pronounced as his career advanced. Bob Dylan would be the doorway to introduce him to folk artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. When Bruce joined the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour Bob's "Chimes of Freedom" featured on the set in a trimmed down version and ultimately got released on the live charity EP by the same name. Bruce had started to tap into the bigger ideologies Dylan represented, much against the latter's own liking. Dylan had become, in his career, as much of a symbol of the rebellious sixties against his will as Springsteen got labeled the next Dylan when he started his. When Springsteen performed at a benefit for the Christic Institute (download the show here) , Bruce pulled out "Highway 61", performing it together with Jackson Brown and Bonnie Rait. Springsteen would perform "Forever Young" with Dylan in 1995, during a concert for the R&R Hall of Fame. Maybe the one song that captures the spirit of both artists and the essence of R&R.
They would again share the stage in 2003 during the closing night of the Rising tour at the Shae Stadium (download the show here: part 1 and part 2). Seeing how that tour rolled down the tracks while the invasion in Iraq started to unravel their performance, of two children from the Vietnam generation, got an extra dimension. History was threatening to repeat itself, with Bruce ultimately trying to assume the role that had been ascribed to Dylan in the sixties with the Vote For Change initiative. During this series of concerts Bruce would regularly share the stage with another big sixties influence and hero, John Fogerty (download a show here). Dylan would be present once more when Bruce hit the road with the Seeger Sessions tour, a series of shows heavily instilled with the rebellious nature Dylan represented.
"Highway 61" - Bob Dylan
"Highway 61" - Bruce Springsteen feat Jackson Brown and Bonnie Rait
"Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)" - Van Morrison
"I Want You" - Bruce Springsteen
Friday, December 14, 2007
The second major influence on Springsteen were the Beatles. During 1963"Introducing the Beatles" made it into the Springsteens' household and rekindled Bruce's interest in the guitar. Although the reports are somewhat conflicting, Bruce first got a guitar when he discovered Elvis at age eight to nine. At that time Bruce's hands were to small to even begin to play. The instrument sat in the corner. After hearing the Beatles Bruce wanted to pick up the instrument again. His mother, Adele Springsteen, got him one for Christmas. Close to thirty years later Springsteen would thank his mother when he wrote "the Wish". "Twist and Shout" is allegedly the first song Bruce learned to play, at least he admitted as much during a show the night after John Lennon got shot. It is highly possible that Bruce was already strumming along when the Beatles performed the song on the Ed Sullivan show early in 1964. Lennon's clunky strumming on his Rickenbacker and his strained belting caused a tilde wave that would cement R&R and make it an art form to be reckoned with.
As Bruce recently affirmed once more during a recent interview for German television, radio was at the time Bruce grew up his main source for music. Other than today, radio in the late fifties and early sixties did bring the best in music, or at least in R&R. At the Springsteens' house hold Adele had the radio on through out the day as her escape for her dreary live into the romantic world of Pop. It is therefore likely that Springsteen heard the Isley Brother's version of "Twist and Shout", originally a lack luster early Phil Spector production for the Top Notes, well before the Beatles issued their album in the United States. The cross over success the Isley Brothers enjoyed at Wand records with the song early in 1962 directly led to them being signed at Motown. During the sixties the sound of young America was omni present on the radio and would ultimately be a big influence on Springsteen as well. But it were the Beatles that proved to be at the nucleus of what Springsteen would become.
The Beatles first broke in the US with "Please, Please Me", a mid tempo bluesy song that according to John Lennon was inspired by the singles of Roy Orbison and Bing Crosby. Seeing how heavily the Beatles success was derived from Black American culture it does seem fitting now that the Black owned VeeJay got to break the Beatles in the American market when everybody was still underestimating the impact the Beatles would have. After all what were they but a bunch of middle class white kids from Liverpool recycling American music. As an independent label VeeJay probably jumped at the opportunity to distribute to make a quick buck, as the Beatles had already scored a minor hit back home with "Love Me Do". What record companies failed to realize at the time was that with Elvis in the army and Jerry Lee Lewis caught up in the scandal surrounding his marriage to his 13 year old niece, R&R had a gaping void. The market was dominated by Black acts and what white acts there were had gone over to sugar cane pop. White teenagers really hardly had any reference, as far as they were concerned R&R was something exotic performed by wild Black acts. Suddenly there were the Beatles proving you and your friends could be in a R&R band and make it big. Exactly the type of R&R mythology the E-Street Band still thrives on today.
Aside from what is now called the British invasion, the success of The Beatles caused a tilde wave of Garage bands to storm the scene. Amongst those bands were big Springsteen influences such as The Young Rascals, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, the Animals, the Rolling Stones and of course the Kingsmen who immortalized "Louie Louie" and did a mean version of "Twist and Shout" themselves. Part of this scene, albeit very minor, was a band Springsteen joined in 1965, the Castilles. If there was any doubt on the influence the Beatles had on the then zit infested Springsteen one only has to look at the hairdo of choice in that particular outfit. The Castilles would prove to be Bruce's first important school of R&R. It was with this band he did his first show, wrote his first songs and would ultimately record his first single "That's What You Get" with the flip side "Baby I". The single never saw the light of day. The band performed on some local dances and even at an insane asylum, what better place for R&R to thrive, but ultimately disbanded in 1967 at the dawn of the Summer of Love.
Though the Beatles busted it all wide open for Springsteen, his influences didn't stop there. Springsteen was that kind of kid who absorbed it all, borderline obsessive an head ache to his parents, his father especially. For his live presence the Garage or Fraternity Rock bands and the great Soul acts would ultimately be more important. "Twist and Shout" would ultimately become something of a staple in his sets when he formed the E-Street Band. Notorious for their long shows from the beginning the E-Street Band was confronted with too little original material to fill out a set. Besides, Springsteen as learned with the Castilles a R&R band would go over much better when they played a few hits from the radio that would allow the crowd to really shake it on down. Maybe that's why covers would be featured so prominently near the end of the set, to really tear the house down. These were the days before Born to Run became a R&R classic in its own right, Springsteen needed to lean into the hits of others. In developing his stage act, the Isley Brother's version of "Twist and Shout", with them calming the audience down before firing it up again as to get the audience in a frenzy became the template to which the E-Street Band set their encores. The Beatles may have busted R&R wide open, over the years Springsteen would become instrumental in keeping R&R alive.
"Twist and Shout" - The Isley Brothers
"Twist and Shout" - the Kingsmen
"Twist and Shout" - Bruce Springsteen (live, august 20th 1975)
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
1. Follow That Dream – Elvis Presley.
“Elvis is my religion. But for him I’d be selling encyclopedias right now”.
It is hard to determine when Bruce first saw Elvis. Bruce recalls it was a Ed Sullivan show but over the years it has become misty which show exactly. Most critics pin point it at the January 6th 1957 show. Al though this may very well be true, it was also one of Elvis’ least inspired shot from the hips up shows. If the Springsteens were regular watchers of the Ed Sullivan show it could very well have been the electrifying first show when Elvis came out with his full sexual powers. With his slicked back hair, his eye shadow and propulsive pelvis, Elvis was the right man at the right time. Popular consent pin points the birth of R&R at the rise of Elvis. The King was the one who’d bust it wide open. Critics may feel there was R&R before him, but nobody had the cultural impact Elvis had. The young Springsteen was awestruck at nine years old. He later recalled “When I was nine, I couldn’t imagine not wanting to be Elvis”. Bruce also made a vow for himself “When I first heard Elvis, I knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody” he said later, “I was going to be my own boss”. Prophetic words indeed.
How much the image of Elvis overlapped with his own would become apparent when Springsteen reworked Elvis’ “Follow That Dream” in the early eighties. With that song Springsteen suddenly makes it apparent how much of his own values are inspired by Elvis’ promise. “Follow That Dream” by Elvis is a 1 minute 39 “Promised Land” prototype. A vow that somehow seemed more solemn to Bruce, reflected in the slowed pace and preaching deliverance of Springsteen’s version. On the ’81 live version Bruce performs that song to sparse accompaniment, his voice starts out with a whisper but slowly climaxes before it climbs back to muted prayer. Springsteen first performed his version of Chuck Berry's “Johnny Bye Bye” in 1981, re-designed as a tribute to Elvis. One of the most gripping performances was delivered at a tribute concert for
"Follow That Dream" - Bruce Springsteen
"Johnny Bye Bye" - Chuck Berry
"Johnny Bye Bye" - Bruce Springsteen
Sunday, December 9, 2007
James Brown was born in 1933 during the depression era in the rural South. The Browns lived in extreme poverty and when his parents divorced his father eventually sent him off the live with his aunt in the brothel she ran. Nobody got the Browns anything as Brown recounted in his candid 1986 biography. Brown likened the situation in the rural South to slavery, after seeing his father working for nearly nothing, himself hustling from early age to get by. One a few occasions Brown was even send away from school for insufficient clothing, eventually dropping out in the 5th grade. Maybe that's why James Brown got so determined to get it himself. James experienced the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, he knew he wasn't about to expect any handouts. It was in his aunt's brothel that James' seeds for his musical career were sown when he picked up some guitar from legendary blues man Tampa Red, but the road to success from those first three chords was long and hard.
Things started to turn around, oddly enough, when he was send to reform school for armed robbery. Through his time there he got acquainted with Bobby Byrd who's parents took the young Brown in when he got paroled. With Byrd he would eventually form the Famous Flames, the band that got them signed at Syd Nathan's King/Federal through producer and talent scout Ralph Bass who was impressed by James' live presence. At the time the Flames were a far cry from what James Brown would become. With James' relentless energy the Flames were modeled to Little Richard and the Upsetters. So much in fact that they would fill in for Richard when he abandoned R&R to serve the Lord. Nobody even noticed at first. Despite the resemblance to the money making Richard Nathan didn't like what he saw at first, in fact he hated it. When Brown came up to Cincinnati to cut "Please, Please, Please" Nathan got close to throw them out of the studio. Much to his surprise, and maybe even disgust, the record hit big when he decided to put it out on Bass' insistence. "Please, Please, Please" hit #5 in the R&B charts, while sniffing at pop at a #105. James Brown was on his way.
With the abundance of James Brown compilations these days it is hard to tell which of those will give you a decent review of his career. Many of these compilations focus on his early career to boot, leaving his early career under lit. With "The Roots Of A Revolution" and "Soul Pride: The Instrumentals" out of print, there hardly was any of his early material left on the market. Hot on the tails of the "Complete Motown Singles" Hip-O Select is determined to fill that current gap in the James Brown reissue market with an ambitious project. Started on "Please, Please, Please"'s 50th anniversary in 2006 Hip-O intents to re-release every single 45 Brown has ever released, A and B side, even a few that never saw the light of day. A project that should get any James Brown fan's heart running faster as some of these singles are criminally rare and have never been released digitally. Every double disc comes with an informative booklet with sessions information, dates and personal complemented with rare photo's and essays by Brown historian Alan Leeds. Like no other project before, the complete singles give a complete picture of how Brown's music evolved from the early days on. Especially the first three compilations working up to 1965 and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" may prove to be the most interesting of the lot.
Although there are a lot of gems to be found on these compilations they are aimed at the hardcore James Brown fan indeed. A lot of the early sides between "Please, Please, Please" and his ultimate follow up smash "Try Me" (with Jazz legend Kenny Burrel on guitar) are not very distinctive, especially when set off against the constant flow of R&B hits during those days. On tracks like "I Feel That Old Feeling Coming On" your can clearly feel mister Excitement trying to break loose, but James Brown in his search for a follow up hit was still trying too much to copy other smash records. If "Please" hadn't hit Syd Nathan's patience with Brown might have worn out fast, but because it did Brown was allowed to develop himself as an artist. Legend in the making got recorded every step of the way. We get to hear Brown form his distinct sound, trying to follow up "Try Me". Dabbling in mid tempo Gospel Blues ballads as "I've Got To Change", rousing instrumentals as "Bucket Head" with a honking sax, through raving rockers like "Good Good Lovin' ", before hitting big again with "Think". It is on this 45 with its whiffs of Funk that Brown's later career starts to simmer beneath the surface while pulling him away from his one hit wonder status.
The second compilation covers 1960 to 1963. Both James' sound and his band start to evolve as his success broadens. As far as taking apart the myth of James Brown these two discs are extremely interesting. James Brown's Funk revolution is often described as being overnight with critics pinpointing the exact song at "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" or "Cold Sweat". Brown's sense for syncopation is often credited to legendary Funk drummers Melvin Parker or Clyde Stubblefield who wouldn't be in Brown's band until years after the period covered in volume two. Yet as disc two shows James Brown's Funk is much more a result of his evolution than a revolution. Partly because of James' disputes with Nathan over royalties and partly because he wanted to add more depth to his profile Brown recorded quite the few instrumentals during this period with his band (a rarity in those day). With his trade mark limited but greasy organ playing and an incredibly tight band backing him, Brown's music started to bounce more. A big brake through came with the B-side for Country outing "Three Hearts In A tangle", trying to benefit from Ray Charles' success in the Genre. "I've Got Money" is an extremely raucous and funky track featuring the New Orleans born Clayton Fillyua on drums. With Fillyua on drums Brown seemed to momentarily jump into his future. It wouldn't be until 1968's "Cold Sweat" that James Brown would sound quite as funky again. Brown's biggest successes from this period are still derived from Gospel Blues ballads and R&B raves but James was on his way to become a very distinct voice in the field of music.
Late in 1962 Brown again triumphed with one of the first Black live albums to rocket up the charts. Again the stubborn and headstrong James Brown proved Syd Nathan wrong who felt that such a project would never work since the R&B market was very much a 45 market. That's where the big money for King was, not in expensive live album where no singles could be drawn from. James went ahead and financed the album himself, "Live At The Apollo" was released and when DJs started playing the whole album start to finish, the rest became history. "Live At The Apollo" captured an essential aspect of James Brown, the live performer. It was his reputation as a scorching live artist that kept him alive during his dry spells on the charts often selling out without any hit to back him up. The third installment, covering James' road to super stardom through 1964/65, opens with Nathan trying to cash in on the albums success by over dubbing the original "Please, Please, Please" with canned applause. The fans were not to be fooled and the single failed to chart as the album continued to sell, even crossing over into the Pop market.
1964/65 was also the period where Brown's desire for a better contact with King prompted him to start releasing records through the Smash label when Nathan wouldn't budge. James felt he could do so since he was singed to King as James Brown and the famous flames. The first few singles on Smash didn't get much chart action as Brown oddly enough chose to venture deeper into a more classic Blues sound with releases as "Caldonia", originally a hit for Louis Jordan, one of Brown's few inspirations he would later claim.
When those Jump Blues sides failed to chart Brown dived back into R&B with "Out of Sight". Here Brown continued the path started on "I've Got Money" as he started to incorporate the hypnotic vamps that were already trade mark for his live shows together with his lightening fast dancing. The 45 became a cross over hit and Nathan filed suit. Brown was no longer allowed to record for Smash, at least not as a singer. An odd period followed where King tried to milk Brown's backlog and James would release instrumentals on Smash. Great as especially the instrumentals were, they didn't get much action of the charts. "I Got You" was performed in the film "Ski Party" but Smash had to sit on the much requested single because of the legal difficulties between Brown and Nathan. Brown's career continued to sky rocket because of his TV appearances, prompting both gentle men to come to a settlement.
Brown returned at King with a lightening Smash, a superstar was born when he released "Pappa's Got A Brand New Bag". A tune so hot it needed to be stretched over both the A and B side. even James was allegedly baffled by the revolutionary sound and the energy that the single held as he admitted in an interview "It's a little beyond me.....it's a thing and it's out there". With Melvin Parker's tight drumming and Maceo Parker's sax bouncing off that syncopation, Brown unleashed a force he couldn't stop even if he had tried. Papa became the template for the rest of his career. The follow up a poppy but decisively funkier re-recording of "I've Got You (I Feel Good)" stormed up the charts, locking Brown deep into a groove and made him one of the hottest stars for the decade to come. James Brown would eventually become a genre in itself, Hip-O Select's releases give an unique perspective of how he got there.
"I've Got That Old Feeling Coming On"
"I've Got Money"