Songs with “Years” in the title.

Well, here we are again.  Another year gone.  But the music lives on.  Originally my thought was to compile a list of Rock ‘n Roll songs about New Year’s Day or Eve.  But said songs are scarce.  So then I opted for songs with years in the title.  And I stretched the definition a bit as you’ll see.  But I’m quite proud of my selections. Feel free to add these to your New Year’s Eve play list.  I mean who I am to stop you.  I don’t have copyrights on any of these songs.  So grab a bottle of your best Asti Spumante, get your party hat on and without futher adieu, here are my favorite songs with references to “Years” in their title in order of my preference, bottom to top: (Click on the song title to be directed to the YouTube video link)

Summer of ’69 – Bryan Adams.  I’m not a big Bryan Adams fan.  A few of his songs are all right.  This is one of them.  I always questioned the lyrics in this one about him starting his first band in 1969.  The dude was only 10 years old.  How many 10 year olds do you know playing in a rock ‘n roll band?  Nonetheless, it makes for a good story line.

2525 – Zager and Evans.  Wooo, talk about one hit wonders! These guys were it.  This trippy, folksy tale about the future demise of mankind was Z & E’s one foray into the pop charts, back in 1969.   Also covered by the new wave band Visage in 1978. Compare and contrast the two.  It’s fun!

Eighties – Killing Joke.  My friends would probably say that this is my signature song, considering how much I love ‘80’s music.  But this is a KICK ASS song.  As was the entire album.  Give a listen.  If you don’t want to put on your Doc Martens and jump in a mosh pit while listening to this one check your pulse.

1979 – Smashing Pumpkins.  And just before, or in this case after, the eighties came 1979.  This is sleak little number off the Pumpkins “Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness” album.  Which was one of the best albums of the ‘90’s in my opinion.

Pop Song 89 – R.E.M.  Before Michael Stip got all granolaey R.E.M. once rocked pretty nicely.  This is one of the rockin’ tunes they did back in the ‘80’s.  It’s got a catchy guitar hook and you can dance to it.

1963 – New Order.  Great studio band.  Terrible live band.  Saw them twice back in the ‘80’s. Very boring live.  But they wrote some great dance club tunes.  Kind of a depressing song when you listen to the lyrics.  You may want to play this one AFTER you’ve rung in the new year.

1984 – David Bowie.  Funny how people thought the world was going to be all futuristic and stuff in 1984.  Having lived through 1984 I can tell you it wasn’t really all that futuristic.  Unless you consider Rubik’s cubes, pegged 501 jeans, and Apple IIc computers futuristic.  But David Bowie was pretty spacey when he wrote this back in 1973, so I’ll cut him some slack.

1984 (Sex Crime) – Eurythmics.  I’ve always loved, loved, loved this song.  But it never got much airplay.  Originally Eurythmics were commissioned to the soundtrack for the movie “1984” but then something happened and they were ‘86ed (get it 1984/86’ed, pretty clever eh?) from the project.  But they wrote some really good tunes for it.  Which for some reason didn’t appear on their first Greatest Hits compilation.  That’s a thing that makes you go hmmmmmm.

21st Century Boy – T. Rex.  The King of Glam Marc Bolan wrote some really hot tunes in the early ‘70’s.  You’ve probably heard this one on commercials.  Get out the glitter and best boa when you crank this one up.

20th Century Fox – The Doors.  Psychedelic man.  Off the Doors debut album, one of the greatest debut albums recorded by any band, this song will get the room spinning just before the clock strikes midnight.

Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five – Wings.  This is one of those GREAT songs that again, does not get played enough.  Paul McCartney needs no further accolades regarding his song writing skills, the man could write a number one tune in his sleep.  Believe it or not THIS was the “B” side to “Band on the Run”.  When they had “B” sides.  Muy, muy, fantastico!

1999 – Prince.  Remember the whole Y2K scare? And what a crock of s@#* it all ended up to be?  We were all gonna party like it was 1999 because everyone was freaked about what the year 2000 would bring.  As if we’d all just go f’ing berserk because the stop lights were out.  Anyway, another great song.  Prince at his best.  I like the album version with the little “Mommy. Why does everybody have a bomb?” coda at the end.  I think my mom played this album until the grooves wore at out after she bought it.

New Year’s Day – U2.  Of course I had to place this one at the top of the list.  It was the only song with the actual words “New Year’s Day” in the title.  Off their “War” album, this was when U2 and Bono were trying to change the world through their music.  Now he and the boys just like to dance.  I remember seeing them in ’85 on the “Unforgettable Fire” tour.  They did this song. I was impressed with Dave Evans going back and forth between piano and guitar on it.

There you have it.  If you have others that you feel should be on the list send them to us.  We’ll be happy to add them to next YEAR’s list.  Happy New Year everyone!!!!!

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The next best Rock ‘n Roll Christmas songs…

I’m a little Grinchy when it comes to Christmas songs.  I prefer originals to covers.  And I prefer rock ‘n roll Christmas songs to the classics.  Although I do love me some “Little Drummer Boy”.  That song rocks.

A few years back I wrote a post that listed what I thought to be the Top 10 Rock ‘n Roll Christmas songs of all time.  If you missed you can read it at:

But time has passed, and I thought it would be a good time to list some of my other favorites.  And I had to break the rule on some of these, a few of them being covers of classic Christmas songs.  And some of them I can merely tolerate.  I know, I’m a mean one Mr. Grinch.  So with no further adieu here are my best of the rest rock ‘n roll Christmas songs:

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love

This song has been covered over the years by numerous artists, including my favorite rendition by U2.  But I’ll always give props to the original of any tune.  So Darlene Love and Phil Spector, good job.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Bruce Springsteen

I’m not big on covers.  And like I said above, I prefer originally penned rock ‘n roll Christmas songs over the classics, but this one is an exception to the rule.  I remember this song from when I was a kid and always liking the baritone coda from Clarence Clemons, “you better be good for goodness sakes”.

Christmas Is The Time to Say I Love You – Billy Squire

This is a Christmas song I really like.  I’m surprised I didn’t include it in my original list of Christmas rock ‘n roll songs.  Billy Squire had a hot streak going in the early ’80’s including this song.  Which was pretty much the last good song he wrote.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – John Cougar Mellencamp

Another cover here.  This is one of those Christmas songs that I can tolerate.  It’s not bad, but it’s not great.  But then again, the GREAT original rock ‘n roll Christmas songs are hard to come by.

Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight) by the Ramones

Kind of a weak attempt at a Christmas song, but it’s the Ramones, so ya know.  Plus, it’s a little different take on a Christmas song.  So I’ll give them credit for that.

Superstar – From the movie “Jesus Christ, Superstar”

I know, I know.  This is not really a Christmas song.  But I’ve always liked this song.  And it IS about Jesus Christ, so technically it IS a Christmas song.

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Intonation: A Nearly Four-Decade-Long Musical Conversation

Martin D-76

I’ve been enjoying a musical conversation that I’ve been having with my father that has spanned the better part of four decades  This conversation has assumed numerous directions, been carried with words and with music, and though it has been conveyed through countless instruments over a gamut of styles and genres, Bluegrass and the acoustic guitar have always been what I call ‘home’.  Over the course of this conversation with my father, I would have to say that it hasn’t been until about the last year or so that I could say I’ve really ‘gotten’ the meaning of it all–or am getting to the meaning of it all.  Perhaps this would be a good point to mention that my father died in April of 2010, but it doesn’t seem to have put a stop to the conversation; in fact, in some ways things seem to ramped-up a bit.  I know it sounds strange, but trust me, it isn’t.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have been exposed to a great deal of live music–my father spent a good chunk of his free-time playing guitar in a couple of different bands that I remember.  He was a fantastic musician, and I would venture to refer to him more as a guitarist than a guitar player–it’s a subtle distinction and some use the descriptions interchangeably, but not me.  He could play a dozen different instruments proficiently enough to “play along” with a group, but I’m certain he felt most comfortable on the guitar.  There were guitars that came and went in our house–some with six strings, some with twelve (an eight string guitar may have even stayed with us for a short time)–but the one that stuck around until the bitter end was Dad’s Martin D-76.

That's Dad on the right with his D-76, then only a couple of years old.

Looked upon as something of a novelty, the Martin D-76 was a produced to commemorate the U.S. bicentennial, and it was a limited edition with only 1,976.  For the most part, the D-76 did not sell well primarily because of quality control issues that had plagued the preceding years.  The guitars had lost their sense of hand-built quality, and the D-76 was a limited edition that attempted to draw consumers back to the brand; unfortunately they didn’t sell out of them until 1978.  Fortunately, Dad got one, and fortunately they just happen to be good guitars.

As a kid, touching the guitar wasn’t exactly verboten, but it definitely wasn’t encouraged either, and let’s just say that I’m thankful that Dad never saw me doing my Pete Townsend-style windmill strumming technique on his Martin; I might not be writing this post today.

I started off on the ukulele, and played that for a while, but yearned to graduate to a tier-one instrument.  An uncle gave me a banjo and I played it for a time, but all I could muster were some basic techniques that, to this day, I have not moved beyond.  My dad always modestly said that he played guitar so that he could hang out with real musicians, and when a college roommate of mine brought a guitar to school with him, I jumped at the chance to learn, and the couple of chords that I did know bloomed into a laborious, self-directed study of the instrument.   By the next Christmas, I had my own guitar and was free to play as often as I liked.

Many of the ‘guitar-related’ behaviors I saw in my dad as I was growing-up that I never understood now began to make sense.  Tuning the guitar was always a fun thing to watch Dad do:  He would go to that far-off place–not a physical place, but a mental place–with his eyes down-cast, looking at nothing and hearing something that only he could hear.  He could feel that sweet spot between sharp and flat like no one else and if he were playing with someone even the slightest bit out of tune, he would search you out in a crowd to share a funny look, like an inside joke (at my house, whistling out of tune–so long as it was on purpose–was high comedy). I guess I caught the same bug; sometimes I take so long to tune-up that I don’t have enough time to play.

That's Dad on the right with 12-string guitar, complete with cigarette wedged into the peg head.

Despite the fact that he would always say his tuning was, “close enough for bluegrass”, he taught me that there should be some respect paid to and some care taken with the harmonic relationship between strings, and further, the relationship between the instruments.

Dad also taught me that, if you were going to play, you play like you mean it.  You didn’t have to play with him very much to hear him tell you to play it or sing it louder.  He played with a heavy right hand, and over the years, nearly dug a hole in the spruce top where his pick would come down just above the top E string, something that was thankfully left untouched when the guitar was sent back to Martin 10 or 15 years ago for a factory reset.

The arc of my own musical interests has run the gamut, but live, imperfect music has always been at the core, and though I ranged-off into electric territory, I always came back to the acoustic guitar, and really eventually back home to bluegrass.  Perhaps it was my own maturity level, but there was something restorative about bluegrass.  I could identify with ‘the old home place’, having moved away from it, and pining to get back to it one way or the other, in one form or another.

Martin D-76 Purfling

I watched him for years, studied his mannerisms, and saw how connected he was to this guitar and how capable he was with it.  That’s why it was so tough, 3 months after he’d been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, to see him toting this guitar through the airport on his last trip to Phoenix before he died.  Unless you’ve experienced it, I guess you don’t know how you’ll act, but I had been whistling past the graveyard for 3 months and in that moment, everything became quite real, and I knew instantly what that scene meant.  He told me that, “It was always your guitar anyway.”

Not feeling especially worthy of playing such an instrument and partially due to some degree of grief I’m sure, it took me a while before I felt completely comfortable with the idea that I was now the guitar’s steward.  After a couple of months, I had Bob Colosi make me a set of bridge pins, nut, and compensated saddle–all out of bone–to replace the original plastic ones that Martin put on the guitar and that my father so detested.  I then had the guys at Guitar Electronics (don’t let the name fool you) do the fitting, shaping and installation.  It wasn’t until I had added these touches and actually improved upon the original sound that I felt like the guitar was mine.  I even solved the difficult B string tuning problem with the compensated saddle which Dad probably wished he had done too.

It’s funny to me how I kind of chuckled at my dad for the amount of time he spent trying to get his guitar in-tune, and only later realized why.  With a fine instrument, the tones are so much more well-defined and you can hear that relationship between that the strings that I talked about earlier much more clearly.  Also with a fine instrument, the woods used in the guitar are much more superior conductors of sound vibration, so not only can you hear it, but you can feel it as well.  It is hard to convey this in words, but suffice it to say that I’ve played for nearly 20 years, and this was an epiphany for me.

That's Dad in the middle with his D-76. He'd be pissed if he knew I posted this one.

I found myself doing many of those things I observed my father doing over all of those years, and I found that things that I did not understand had begun to become clear.  Sometimes, it is as though we are playing the same guitar and I find myself chuckling over one of those old inside jokes–almost like I’m still carrying-on a conversation with my father, even since his death.

My daughter will have forgotten her grandfather–she was not yet 2 when he died–and my son was born 2 weeks after his death, so the one real tangible thing I can share with them about an extremely vital aspect of my father’s life is locked away in that guitar, and the only difficulty will be for me to coax it out for them to “see” for themselves.  I really do feel that I’m more of a steward than an owner of this guitar, and perhaps one day I can tell one of my kids that the guitar has always belonged to them anyway.

Now, if those kids would just keep it down so I could tune-up.

The “Prime” of the Grateful Dead

First let me say that it’s been a while since I’ve reviewed any music, let alone, The Dead, but I recently listened to a really hot show–one that intend to review soon.  This show really catches this band in their prime, but in order to define ‘prime’ it is important to note that The Dead had several primes, and this just happens to be one of them.

The “primes” of The Dead can most easily be marked by the personnel changes in the keyboard slot–also known as the hot-seat when it comes to The Dead because they either died as keyboardist with The Dead, or died shortly after their stint.  Here I’ll talk a little about the personnel, and in subsequent installments, I’ll give an example of a performance that typified their stay, or that particular “prime” with the band.

Some folks prefer the primal Dead marked in large part by Pig Pen, the iconic whiskey swilling, organ and harp playing, and liable to say anything on stage, larger than life personality who helped make the The Dead stand out as something more than just a psychedelic blues band.  His antics were unpredictable and the things that came out of his mouth would make the PC crowd shudder.

Other folks prefer The Dead most commonly associated with Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux who were brought in on the very tail end of Pig’s career prior to his death from complications due to cirrhosis of the liver–a bit too much swilling.  Keith’s jazz influences and his insistence on playing an acoustic piano almost exclusively led to a band that explored everything from jazz-rock fusion to disco.

Still, some folks prefer The Dead of the Brent Mydland years who came in to replace the Godchauxs–Keith had developed an addiction to alcohol and had a nasty habit of falling asleep at the keys, and Donna, well, she could make Bob Dylan sound like a songbird.  Soon after they were fired, Keith died in a car accident.  Brent played several different sets of keys:  piano, organ, synthesizer–and could also sing, so he was able to not only replace Keith and Donna from a personnel standpoint, but he went beyond, and though I would shy away from too many comparisons to Pig Pen, Brent brought back some personality behind the keys and brought an edge to the music that made it sound fresh again.

Finally, there are those people who prefer The Dead with Vince Welnick at the keys–Vince was brought in after Brent died of a drug overdose.  Why this would be your favorite, I have no idea.

Stay tuned to this space, and I’ll review the show I originally set out to review:  Live at the Civic Center Music Theater in Oklahoma City, OK on 11/15/1972.  For now, have a Happy Thanksgiving, and you’ll hear from me soon.

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October 1969: The Beatles’ Abbey Road Hits #1 on the UK Chart

41 Years ago this week, Abbey Road hit number 1 on the UK charts, and although released prior to the Let it Be album, it would be, technically, the Beatles last studio recordings released.  What is really amazing about the album is that, though the band wasn’t really functioning as a band at that point, they put many of their differences behind them, and in a number of ways, used to the album to make light of those differences. 

The album cover itself fueled speculation that there was truth to the “Paul is dead” rumor that gained some traction around the time the album was released.  Perhaps this is a topic for another post, but briefly, John Lennon’s white suit was said to symbolize a clergyman; Ringo Starr’s black suit, an undertaker; George Harrison’s blue jeans and denim shirt, a grave-digger; and the fact that Paul McCartney is walking out of step with the band and has no shoes all ‘proved’ the rumor to be true.  However you take the album cover, it is an iconic image in the world of pop and rock music.

In the UK, the album debuted at number 1 and spent 11 consecutive weeks there, and then was bumped for 1 week by The Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed album before returning to number 1 for 6 more weeks.  In all it spent nearly 2 years in the UK top 75 and then reached number 30 when the album was released on CD in 1987.

The album is essentially divided into 2 sections–side A being a selection of singles, and side B being comprised of shorter incomplete compositions woven together into a longer musical suite.  Although most of the album was recorded in only about a month’s worth of time, it remains timeless in its appeal.

Various publications throughout the years have placed it on their ‘top’ lists in various slots, it is generally viewed as one of the top 20 albums of all time (I would put it in the top 10).  Like many albums or concerts I’ve recomended to folks over the years, this is one of those pieces of music that deserves your time, and deserves to be listened to in one sitting.  If you don’t own the album, get it–it’s one of those albums that is extremely approachable for those of you who might be less familiar with The Beatles–it is most definitely an album you’ll cherish.

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Synthesizers, oh how I love thee…

I know I’ll get a lot of grief from my fellow rock purists, and my business partner and co-author of our blog here will probably ban me from posting ever again, but I’ll admit it , I love synthesizers.  And I think deep down, most pop/rock listeners do to.

Tell me synthesizers didn’t make “Dark Side of the Moon” groovier. Tell me synthesizers didn’t make “Songs in the Key of Life” funkier.  Tell me synthesizers didn’t make “Physical Graffiti” more mystical, and “Baba O’Riley” more wastelandy.  And tell me, honestly, that you can’t help but do your best robot dance while belting out the lyrics to “Cars” by Gary Numan in that mechanical, lifeless, futuristic humanoid voice you summon up upon the first hand clap of the song.

The synthesizer has gotten a bad rap over the years.  It probably all started when keyboard players started wearing those skinny ties with the piano keys silk screened on them.  The advent of the Keytar was a low point in the evolution of the synthesizer as well.  But if one can overlook those obominations of musical design and look objectively at how the synth has expanded the horizons of pop/rock music, one will be amazed at the versatility of the instrument and how it has enhanced our musical experience over the years.

My favorite period in Rock/Pop history is the timeframe between 1975 and 1985.  Mainly because of the sheer diversity of music that was being produced  in that period, rock, punk, disco, rap, new wave, and the various shades and tones of each.

I would argue that it was during the period noted above that the synthesizer truly made it’s impact on Rock/Pop music.  Sure, bands had used the instrument prior to this period, most notably Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, and some of the other prog rock bands of the period.  But the mid-70’s is when the potential of the synthesizer began to present itself and alter the sound of our music.

I’m not going to go into a history of the synthesizer in this post.  No I merely wanted to express my appreciation of the instrument and point out to all the naysayers that your musical listening experience over the past 40 or so years would have been far inferior if it were not for the almighty synthesizer. 

I just can’t get enough, I just can’t enough. Of the synthesizer.

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What makes a great band iconic? It’s the little things.

Last night I was watching a great program on the History channel called “The Beatles: On Record“.  It’s a facinating introspective on The Beatles and their recording process, starting with their first single “Love Me Do” through their first album, “Please , Please Me” on to “Abbey Road” (their last recorded album, although “Let It Be” was released after).  The show is narrated via interviews with the boys in the band (do I really need to name them?) and George Martin.  With studio film footage and rare outtakes.  It’s really facinating to hear their take on songs and a little bit of the recording process.

Unfortunately the show was only an hour long.  One cannot possibly expect to compress the entire Beatles library into one hour and satisfy the palate.  I could have watched eight hours of this stuff and not been satisfied.

As I was watching I thought to myself, what is the difference between bands such as the Beatles, Stones, and Zeppelin that seperates them from the rest.  And I’m not talking about them compared to average run of the mill bands.  I’m talking about them compared to bands on the next level.  Kind of like comparing Michael Jordan to say, Dominique Wilkins.  Talent wise there may not be a huge difference.  But still, there’s a HUGE difference.

What I surmised was this, the truly iconic bands seperate themselves from the rest by the “other songs” they wrote.  For example, my favorite Stones album is “Sticky Fingers”.  Now yes, I love “Brown Sugar”, “Bitch”, and “Wild Horses” (the hits from the album).  But what makes that album extremely special for me are the songs like “Moonlight Mile“, “You Gotta Move“, and “Dead Flowers“.  These are the songs you don’t hear much on the radio, but nonetheless they are terrific songs.  And they show the breadth of the band.

Again, watching that Beatles show last night I was reminded of some of the songs on “Revolver” (probably my favorite Beatles album) and “Rubber Soul” (close 2nd on list of favorites) that were the “other songs”.  Songs like “And Your Bird Can Sing“, “Doctor Robert“, “You Won’t See Me“, and “If I Needed Someone“.  Remarkable songs all of them.  And for almost any other band they would have been considered masterpieces.  Which again makes the iconic bands stand out from the rest.

The fact that those songs don’t get the airplay or recognition that the “hits” off the albums get is not a tragedy.  It just goes to show that when you are THAT great your only measure of comparison is to yourself.  Often I hear Zeppelin fans pan “In Through the Out Door”.  Really?  Maybe, for a Zeppelin album, it doesn’t measure up to “Physical Graffiti” of their first album, but still, it’s a great album.  Put it up against most other bands best (except the icons of course) and I think you would feel the same.

What’s my point here? I guess it’s just that true greatness cannot necessarily be measured just by record sales, although all of the aforementioned bands sold plenty of records.  I would say it’s the reason why many people view Willie Mays as the greatest baseball player of all time.  Sure, guys hit more home runs than Willie, stole more bases than Willie, hit for a higher average, etc.  But it was the little things that set Willie apart, his true artistry on the field, and his overall volume of work that amazes people. 

And the same holds true for the rock ‘n roll icons.