DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE…THE LOST YEARS OF THE GO-GO’S EDITION

“Cool Jerk”
The Go-Go’s (1990)
#60 UK
Recommended source: Greatest

“The Whole World Lost Its Head”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
#108 Billboard
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

“Good Girl”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
Did not make the charts
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

“Beautiful”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
Album Track
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

Weird.

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Every once in a while when I’m noodling around, doing nothing in particular, I think of something from days gone by and then, being now properly programmed by modernity, I naturally think again. What I tend to think the second time is “I wonder if it’s on YouTube?”

One of the things I still can’t believe is not on YouTube, no matter how often I’ve thought “surely it must be there by now,” is the Go-Go’s’ MTV video for “Turn to You,” the last great single of their original incarnation, which ended in 1984. One reason I keep hoping it will be there is so I can do a “Not Quite Random Favorites” edition titled “My Favorite Video” because nothing else comes within a thousand miles. (That’s the one where they played a band at a sock-hop…and their own dates. Maybe they really did need a break.)

Anyway, last night I went looking for it yet again and found it still wasn’t there. There’s a mini-doc on the making of “Turn to You”–of course there is–but not the actual video.

Story of my life and all that.

But, this time, clicking around, I started thinking of other things that should be there, none of which I ever thought to look for before.

By which I mean videos from “the lost years”….those years between 1984’s Talk Show and 2001’s God Bless the Go-Go’s, when they popped in and out a couple of times and did what they always did, which was be perfect.

Sometimes, what other people did with and to them wasn’t perfect. Whoever put the extra disco-fied ‘effects’ on this wasn’t perfect. But I’m sure it wasn’t their idea. They were barely paying attention to themselves or each other when this came out in 1990. But having the video finally makes sense of it (in a way its inclusion on their first greatest hits package didn’t). What’s clear hearing–and seeing–it now, at least to me, is that Belinda Carlisle had turned from a singer who was right for her band to a singer who could carry any band. I missed that at the time so a mea culpa is in order.

They were paying a little more attention when they got together and recorded three new songs of their own for 1994’s full-blown retrospective Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s. Almost inconceivably, I had never even wondered if they made any videos attending that little project, so I went searching deeper and found this, for the lead single from the project….which isn’t much of a video (not nearly as good as “Cool Jerk,” let alone what they had done in their heyday) but is a fabulous record. Even if the faint tang of my disappointment in finally realizing that “Boston girls are getting down in bikinis” (a touch of poetry) was really “Muslim girls” (meh) remains, it’s failure to break out still serves as one of the Seven Signs of the Apocalypse…

…And it wasn’t even the best of the three sides they cut for Return.

This, for which they released a single but didn’t make a real video, was better, and has the new-and-improved Carlisle’s finest vocal…

..and I’m not even sure it was the best…depends on the mood I guess. It’s worth reading the quotes at the beginning of each song, but they won’t break any ties.

All in all, that should have been enough to re-start their career.

But it wasn’t.

God Bless the Go-Go’s came out a full seven years later and, instead of really promising more, its final track sealed the whole deal. Years of summer reunion gigs, Kathy Valentine’s departure, and one of those “farewell tours” (at least I think there was only one) formalized it.

But the end was right there in that final track, now commemorated in my favorite “homemade” video.

For some perspective, here’s a nice piece from Goldmine, circa 2011, before Valentine left the band, where, among other things, they debunk any notion that being an all-female band was actually some kind of advantage, post-punk. Turns out that, through no fault of their own, Fanny and the Runaways (both signed by big labels and given major publicity pushes in the decade prior) hadn’t so much blazed a trail as crapped the table.

I’m reading between the lines, of course.

Just more fuel for the argument I made at the time and have made ever since: they didn’t blaze all those trails because it was, as so many argued, “time” for an all-female band. They blazed all those trails because they were the Go-Go’s. It’s only in critical theory that the theories count. In the real world, it’s always the people who matter.

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(Belinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, Jane Wiedlin, Kathy Valentine)

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Wet Willie Up)

“Street Corner Serenade”
Wet Willie (1977)
#30 Billboard
Recommended source: Southern Rock Gold

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By the time Wet Willie released their first effort on Epic Records, the bone-hard Southern rock they had helped bring to prominence was dying out. The form couldn’t survive the death of its two biggest talents. Duane Allman had been killed in a motorcycle accident just as the concept was taking off in 1971. Ronnie Van Zant had gone down in the plane crash that took the heart out what was left in the summer of 1977.

Time for something new–even for a band as tried and true as Wet Willie.

So, a few months after Van Zant’s death, they came up with this weird idea for a record and it became the greatest of its type: The Southern Rock Post-Doo Wop Blue-Eyed Soul Celebration Lament With a Slightly Caribbean Lilt.

Okay, so far as I know, it’s the only record of its type, but it could have withstood some pretty heavy competition. It played wistful or celebratory in its too-brief moment, depending on what you brought to it on a given day.

It still does. It’s the most completely faked record I know of that is also completely true. Wet Willie was from Mobile, Alabama. It’s a big enough city to have an Italian contingent. Still, I rather doubt any “street corner” singing Jimmy Hall and the boys may have done involved guys named Guido.

Except maybe in their own imaginations. And, since imagination was in short supply on the radio by December of 1977 when this was released, one could overlook a few incongruities. It played true back then, for the five minutes it was on the radio. It plays true now, when you have to dig it up on YouTube or Amazon.

And if you think a smile was cheap in those days, you either didn’t live them or don’t remember. A hundred more like “Street Corner Serenade” and we still couldn’t have restarted the revolution. But hey, a hundred more like it and we might not have needed to…

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Bobby Fuller Four Up)

“Let Her Dance”
The Bobby Fuller Four (1965)
#133 Billboard
Recommended source: Never To Be Forgotten – The Mustang Years

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Dave Marsh has written that the Bobby Fuller Four had a claim on being the best rock and roll band in America in the mid-sixties. If you want to start such an argument, you can find enough evidence on the two small box sets that collect all the group’s work (especially the one recommended above) to get it going, though not enough to finish it. For that, Fuller would have needed to live a little longer and keep up the pace.

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Whether he could have, we’ll never know. He was found dead in his car a few months after “I Fought the Law” became a breakout hit in 1966. Among the wilder rumors that floated around in the years after the L.A. coroner checked both “accident” and “suicide” on his death certificate was that Elvis had him killed for refusing to sell that same car. For a more plausible explanation of Bobby’s death–and much else–I highly recommend John Kaye’s great novel The Dead Circus, which I reviewed here.

For my own take on just how good the Bobby Fuller Four was at high tide, you can go here.

But if you just needed one record to get you thinking about what might have been, “Let Her Dance” might do the trick. The world moved faster back then. What I like to call Pop Time moved at lightning speed. Who knows where Fuller’s career might have been twelve months later if “Let Her Dance” had broken out as it should have in the summer of ’65. Probably nowhere significantly different than where it was. But maybe, just maybe, it would have moved his life a hair to two to the left or right on the Dial of Fate–and just maybe it would have been the hair’s difference that would have let him live to old age.

Keith Richards has spoken about late night parties in Swinging London where John Lennon would get in his cups and say things like “If only Buddy had lived!” the kind of drunken philosophy which means absolutely nothing literally and absolutely everything spiritually.

Bobby Fuller was the closest anyone came to taking Buddy Holly’s place, literally or spiritually. Unfortunately, the proximation was bit too literal. But if you wonder where the ceiling was, try sticking “Let Her Dance” between “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and “London’s Burning”  on the Universe of Stomp’s supremo mix-disc some time.

Then crank it to the max.

You might be surprised who sounds like the genius then.

 

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Betty Wright Up)

“Shoorah! Shoorah!”
Betty Wright (1974)
#28 Billboard R&B, #27 UK
Recommended source: The Best of Betty Wright

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“Shoorah! Shoorah!” was not out of time. The writer, Allen Toussaint, was as hot as a pistol and specialized in southern funk with a slightly Caribbean undercurrent. His “Lady Marmalade,” cut with LaBelle, was one of the era’s signature hits.

Betty Wright herself was the founding queen of Miami’s soul scene. (One of these days I’ll have to do a post on the phenomenon of young women establishing a scene and then being forced to hang on by their fingernails when the boys step in to take over.)  She had a hit at fourteen with “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,” then turned into a teen talent scout who eventually brought both Gwen and George McCrae to her label, Alton. Alton was the springboard producer/exec Henry Stone used to put Miami on the map, not with either of the McCraes or the later arriving KC and the Sunshine Band, but with Wright’s own “Clean Up Woman,” an across-the-board smash in 1971.

Like a lot of rough-voiced soul singers (especially those never associated with Memphis or Motown) Wright maintained a steady, if unspectacular, presence on the R&B charts, but barely dented the pop charts after her one big hit.

The failure of “Shoorah! Shoorah!” to make much noise even on the black charts while her disco-fied label-mates and fellow scenesters were conquering every chart and scene in sight, circa 1974/75, must have been….depressing. Here’s Wright on her attitude at the time: “I used to sit down and think of all the weird things I was gonna do to make me explode–chopping up a plane or something.”

A little extreme maybe, though maybe telling of the crucible that black life in America can be. And when you think about some of the records that have been hits over the years, you can see where she might have felt pushed against the wall.

What does it take to get a hit in this world!

…Just on a personal note, I once did a series of mix-tapes designed to cross all genres of beat music that ran to thirty tapes at ninety minutes each. “Shoorah! Shoorah!” wasn’t just the first record on the first tape. It was the record that gave me the idea. After the great CD selloff of 2002, when a few years passed and I was trying to find an organizing principle for re-constituting my CD collection on a limited budget, I decided to start by acquiring the music on those tapes.

It took me ten years. It also kept me sane.

Thanks Betty.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Dobie Gray Up)

“We Had It All”
Dobie Gray (1973)
Not released as a single.
Recommended source: Drift Away: A Decade of Dobie (1969-1979) (Highly recommended if you have the bucks. One of the era’s great undersung vocalists)

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This is a song that’s been done by Waylon Jennings (he had the country hit), Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, the Rolling Stones (as a late seventies outtake available on YouTube), Bob Dylan and a cast of thousands.

Like more than a few songs recorded by lots of people it was defined by Dobie Gray. Like every record defined by Dobie Gray that wasn’t “Drift Away” or “The In Crowd,” it was not a big hit. In this case, it was not even released as a single–probably because Waylon (or Waylon’s label) beat him to the punch.

It was a highlight of Gray’s debut LP for MCA, which was also his first attempt at cracking the black-man-in-Nashville code that, in eighty years of the town’s race-coded hegemony, has only been fully solved by Charley Pride and Darius Rucker.

When Dobie came to town, there was a whiff of unusual promise. The era saw established artists like the Pointer Sisters and Tina Turner (this was when she took her own fine crack at “We Had It All”) follow Ray Charles’ long-ago footsteps to the country capital. Better than that, fabulous singers with truly country roots and voices–Gray, Stoney Edwards, O.B. McClinton–came tantalizingly close to establishing themselves on country radio, a bond which, if ever fully formed, would have been bound to be long-lasting. No audience is quite as loyal as the country audience.

It didn’t happen.

I wonder where we’d be now if it had.

We can’t know, but Dobie Gray often sounded like a man who had already accepted the impossibility of catching the version of the American dream–the real American dream–he was chasing. Never more so than here, where every word smiles and every word aches.

(NOTE: The only singer who gave Dobie a run for his money when he dug in was Elvis, who matched him on “Lovin’ Arms” and “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel (Who’ll Take Me Back In).” I’ll give a dollar on a nickel he knew a fellow dreamer when he heard one.)

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Rachel Sweet Up)

“Shadows of the Night”
Rachel Sweet (1981)
Not released as a single. #13 in Billboard for Pat Benetar in 1982
Recommended source: Fool Around: The Best of Rachel Sweet

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Rachel Sweet was too early and too late. Too late to be a straightforward heir of the Brenda Lee rasp (which, as of the mid-seventies, had been taken over by adults like Stevie Nicks), and too early to catch the wave of teen angel-dom she helped create (of which Tiffany and Debbie Gibson were the prime beneficiaries and formers of the bridge to Britney and Miley and whoever’s hustling the mall crowd right now, working for the day when they, too, are chosen) none of whom could sing like Rachel Sweet.

Her early records on Stiff excited some critics and a hardcore cult, just enough to ensure that a small, fierce, purely informal band would carry on even if she left the biz. I count myself an enthusiastic member.

Later on, she did indeed leave the biz–at least the rock and roll part of it. She grew up, graduated from Columbia (the university), and made a mint writing and producing for television. According to Wikipedia she was eventually worth enough to buy and sell one of Madonna’s houses for some ridiculous sum.

Good for her.

But those of us in the shameless cult still remember what might have been. She flirted with stardom throughout the late seventies and early eighties. Her cover of Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” made the UK top forty. A slightly surreal duet with Rex Smith on “Everlasting Love,” after she signed with Columbia (the record label), did the same in the U.S. She scraped other charts here and there across the western world.

But, on the whole, her records worked best as secrets and the best secret of all was “Shadows of the Night.” Ex-pat Helen Schneider had a big, contemporary hit with her version in Germany and other parts of Europe. That may have been why Sweet’s American label didn’t release her version as a single.

Or maybe they were just stupid.

It took a lot of miscalculation to prevent Sweet from being a star. And, as my dad used to say about certain other inexplicable things, sometimes you have to assume it must have taken a genius, because no ordinary man could have done it.

The stupidity all around was exposed a year later when Pat Benetar had one of the biggest hits of a hit-machine career with a version that was half as good.

I’m glad Rachel got rich. I only wish it had been for the best of reasons and not just one more proof of a world gone sideways.

Stiff Records 1978

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Manfred Mann Up)

“Each and Every Day”
Manfred Mann (1966)
U.S. B-Side of “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James” (neither side made the U.S. Pop Charts)
Recommended source: Chapter Two: The Best of the Fontana Years

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Manfred Mann was a keyboard playing English jazzbo bandleader who had a knack for finding fabulous singers to front his various aggregations. His first singer was Paul Jones, the raspy R&B fueled belter who lent anything from Brill Building ready-mades like “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and “Sha La La” to Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” an air of what might be called vulnerable aggression.

Remarkably, when Jones left in early 1966, Mann hired Mike D’abo, a completely different kind of singer–pop-oriented, all vulnerability, a hint of mystery–who delivered similarly spectacular results. Although only “The Mighty Quinn” (another remarkable Dylan cover…at one point Dylan reportedly said Manfred Mann was his best interpreter) broke out in the U.S., the band continued on with a steady string of big hits in the U.K.

“Each and Every Day” was not one of them. According to the band’s then guitarist, Tom McGuiness, “We originally wanted to issue it as an A-side in England but we never had much confidence in our own material (it was written by then member Mike Hugg). We always thought our own songs were too quirky to be hits.”

Mann’s confidence in covers was not exactly unfounded. He’d keep that faith right on through the mid-seventies, when the fourth major incarnation of his band topped charts all over the world with their version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded By the Light.” Mann’s particular gift ended up being an ability to hear anthems in other folks “personal” statements.

Somehow, he missed the anthemic quality in Mike Hugg’s own personal statement. Too close to home maybe.

“Each and Every Day” wouldn’t have changed the world, or even the shape of Manfred Mann’s own career.

But, sometimes, you just wish something had been a hit so you could encounter it at random now and then: On the radio, in a commercial, over the intercom at the mall or the grocery store. Hey, I’ve had epiphanies in all those places when something or other was in the mix just because it was a hit. And none were more perfect than this.

For the English working class, then. With the fire that is about to be trained on them from all sides, they’ll need every smile they can find.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Bill Medley Up)

“Brown Eyed Woman”
Bill Medley (1968)
#43 Billboard Pop
#37 Billboard R&B
Recommended source: The Righteous Brothers Anthology: 1962-1974

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(The cover of Bill Medley’s first solo album after leaving the Righteous Brothers. These days, you can buy it for sixty bucks used on Amazon…which means you should shop elsewhere!)

The hits came and went and came and went, but the Righteous Brothers always made great records, together and apart.

They were making great records when Phil Spector found them in the mid-sixties and put them in front of his own greatest record, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” where they easily held their own. They made great records with him. Then they made some great records without him (but very much in his style and spirit). Then they split up and made some great solo records. Then they got back together and made some more great records, straight on through “Hold On” in the mid-seventies (which I should have added to the secret treasure list in my Barry White piece a few days ago).

After that, they quit making records–dead stop–and became an on-again, off-again oldies’ lounge act, at which I do not doubt they were great as well.

Like a lot of duo acts, they had sort of a love-hate relationship, each man longing in some part of himself, to prove he could make it on his own.

“Brown Eyed Woman,” released in 1968 just after their first breakup, was the deep-voiced Medley’s second single. Why is wasn’t his first (the perfectly fine “I Can’t Make Alone” took the honor and went nowhere) is a mystery. But it might explain why this didn’t do better. Not much else does. When your really good first single, off your first solo album when you are trying to break away from a group identity, flops, it doesn’t do your really great second single any favors.

Medley never sang better than here, not even on “Lovin’ Feelin’,” which is the only pop record that has ever given me an out of body experience similar to a religious one (I’ve had them,, too, so I have a more than theoretical frame of reference). There’s not much information available on the recording itself. Medley took the production credits (with Barry Mann), as he had with later Righteous Brothers’ records. I assume he just assembled Spector’s old crew and applied what he had learned. Plenty good, too. Spector himself could not have done better.

But the shattering vocal is all Medley’s. One thing Spector didn’t do much in his otherwise obsessive-to-the-point-of-madness sessions was coach his lead singers. He was too smart for that. He was smart enough to know his greatest gift was as a talent scout.

He never found a bigger talent than Medley, and If the bass half of the Righteous Brothers had managed even one major hit in the late sixties, the rest of his career might have been very different. As it was, he must have known early on that it wasn’t in the cards. If this, a record I can imagine lighting a fire in his good friend Elvis just as he was about to remake the world again, didn’t make it, then what would?

He was certainly never going to beat it. And the singers, they always know…

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Tanya Tucker Up)

“The Jamestown Ferry”
Tanya Tucker (1972)
B-side of “Love’s the Answer”
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: Greatest Hits (Columbia)

“Horseshoe Bend”
Tanya Tucker (1973)
Album cut from What’s Your Mama’s Name
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: What’s Your Mama’s Name

“Greener Than the Grass We Laid On”
Tanya Tucker (1975)
#23 Billboard Country
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: Best of (Gusto/TeeVee)…as far as I know the only source released on CD

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Tanya Tucker hit Nashville as a force of nature and a challenge.She had a hundred-year-old voice in a thirteen-year-old body. What to do, what to do? Fortunately, Bette Midler (who  had sung a song on television after hearing it from Tracy Nelson, who had heard it from the song’s co-writer Alex Harvey) was not available to be signed to Billy Sherrill’s label, Columbia (she had just signed with Atlantic)  and Tanya was handed the song Sherrill definitely wanted to record on somebody, which was “Delta Dawn.” Turned out she knew just what to do.

But the road to figuring out how to follow it up was not entirely smooth. At least not artistically speaking. Since the teenager could sell anything–and would become, and remain, the youngest singer to ever be truly accepted by country radio (which had stacked the deck against Brenda Lee in the early days of rock and roll threatening Nashville’s hegemony)–the powers that be decided the rather mundane “Love’s the Answer” would be the followup.

It did fine, reaching #5 country.

In the world I lived in, though, nobody talked about “Love’s the Answer.” They talked about (and requested) the B-side.

The grassroots reaction to the song opened a vein of sorts and re-raised the central question. What to do, what to do?

Go with it.

Nashville was conservative but it wasn’t stupid. If the dirtiest voice in town was coming from a teenage girl, so be it. The audience wanted more. They got more: “What’s Your Mama’s Name,” “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone),” “The Man That Turned My Mama On.” One smash after another. Whatever those titles promised, the songs delivered. Whatever those songs promised, the voice delivered even more.

And it all happened in such a rush that quite a bit was left laying in between the cracks. A B-side here, an album cut there, a semi-hit that would have been much bigger if it hadn’t been caught up in a label change and gone unpromoted back over here.

Out of an album’s worth, these three end up forming a theme: lost girl, left girl, burned girl who may or may not be left standing because the voice never gives away the ending. It just stays right on the edge between the hurt (I want to die) and the defiance (no way in hell will I give in).

A lot of critics sniggered (and a lot still do). How could she know? Sadder days? Lying in the Alabama sun? Walking through a kingdom of honky tonks and bars? Grow up girl! We know you don’t know!

Mostly, over the years, Tanya has played along. That’s how you survive a wild child reputation in Nashville for forty years. I never bought her reticence myself. I knew plenty of girls who knew exactly what she meant back when–knew exactly how the protagonists she represented in these particular half-hidden stories felt. Pretty hard to believe that she struck exactly the right note, again and again, without also knowing exactly what each song meant.

How?

Well, if she weren’t a wild child female hillbilly who made it big at thirteen and lived it up in everybody’s face instead of learning to write bland, happy songs that fit on everybody’s bland, happy albums, we’d probably just call it art…

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (David Lindley Up)

“Mercury Blues”
David Lindley (1981)
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: El Rayo-X

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Lindley was a founding member of Kaleidoscope, one of those highly regarded west coast bands from the crazy sixties who, like Love or Spirit, struck deep with the few they reached (and, to be clear, Kaleidoscope didn’t reach as many as Love or Spirit). When that band broke up, he fell into the Jackson Browne/Warren Zevon orbit, backing them and others on various albums and tours. All of that won him the chance to do his own thing. El Rayo-X was his first solo LP and it sold about as well as Kaleidoscope. It, too, struck deep with the few who found it. Soon enough, he went back to making a living the old fashioned way–touring, session-work, film scores.

All in all, there was no particular reason he should have had any sort of big deal solo career. El Rayo X is a good album, maybe better than good. But it was never designed to set the world on fire.

Except for maybe the one time it struck pure lightning, a piece of nimble hard rock that harkened back to the founding, whence the tune itself (a fine, rather polite rhythm and blues number in its initial late forties’ incarnation by K.C. Douglas which was nonetheless sturdy enough to withstand the thousand covers that stood between it and Lindley, with the most notable probably being Steve Miller’s) had come.

I’m not even sure if Lindley’s version of “Mercury Blues” was released as a single–it if wasn’t that just proves you can never overstate the stupidity of record companies which is to say, if it wasn’t, it should have been. But if ever a record earned the right to fail just so the future could condemn the unfairness of a past filled with all the mistakes that led us here….