TRACKING PHIL SPECTOR….(CD Review)

A few days back, Greil Marcus, who trashed Phil Spector’s Back to Mono box when it came out, recommended it to someone who wanted to know where she should start if she wanted to get to know Spector’s music.

Very Trumpian I thought–doubly so if he was just being mean–but it did put me in the mood to revisit the box…on headphones.

Listening to Spector at this distance creates an audio equivalent of double-vision for us obsessives. No matter how glorious the sound in your ears is, and no matter how completely you are able to forget the gentleman is a psychopathic murderer, there is always the high probability that someone, somewhere has written about how, in order to really hear it, you need to have the original Philles single…and maybe a Bang and Olufsen (at least) to play it on.

Or the rare European-only vinyl pressing from the sixties.

Or the original tapes that somebody heard in their “truest” form on some bootleg version that was playing down the hall while they were meditating in their college dorm in 1968.

Or when they were hanging out with Phil at his home studio during the first of his several hundred retirements back in the sixties.

I’m not sure all those people are wrong either.

I can personally attest that the reissue MGM 45 I purchased “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” on, which listed Bill Medley as the producer, blows all other versions away.

And, even if you can blow all that out of your head (and, when the best records are playing, you can), there’s still the fact that Phil Spector isn’t best heard on a box set featuring upwards of sixty tracks. His greatest work is too intense and his workaday efforts too mundane to make the experience anything but disorienting. Just when you’re thinking one more wall of *&&#@ strings will either make you drive a splinter under your eyelids or send you off to sleep, some bit of genius brings Paradise heaving back into view (though, not, I hasten to add, on the record of that name, on which the Shangri-Las blew the Ronettes away).

One thing I did notice this time around, though, was that Paradise came heaving into view most often according to a distinct pattern.

Again and again, my cheap headphones (ain’t no Bang and Olufsen at my house, alas) kept delivering the notion that Spector did his best work when he was working with a new voice.

And, usually, it was a Seasoned Pro’s voice.

Gene Pitney…

Darlene Love….

Ronnie Spector (the partial exception to the Seasoned Pro rule–she had made records but was still living at home when he met her)…

Bill Medley….

Bobby Hatfield…

Tina Turner…

Sonny Charles…

In every case, Spector soon tired of whatever quality he had heard in them…and (with a brief exception for Darlene Love, whose power he diluted by parceling out her records under various names, least often her own) subsequent productions–or business arrangements–suffered accordingly.

The usual method for burying anyone who hung around too long (usually no more than a record or two), was to do just that.

Bury them.

Their voices anyway.

Because one thing Phil Spector liked to remind all his singers of, was his ability to make them go away, often at the very moment when one more brilliant arrangement (usually provided by Jack Nitzsche, though there were others), was begging for the Wall of Sound to be dialed back a bit and let the lead singer shine.

The one exception was the former Ronnie Bennett.

Her voice, he was never quite able to tame.

God knows he tried.

On record after record.

And when that didn’t quite work–when he couldn’t quite make her irrelevant to her own records the way he had done with literally everyone else, even Darlene Love–he found other ways. Like marrying her and locking her up in his mansion and killing her career and tormenting her for years until she ran away (carrying her shoes down the mansion’s driveway so she wouldn’t make any noise) and finally stalking her and terrorizing her with death threats everybody thought she was crazy to take so seriously until he finally acted out on Lana Clarkson.

The gift she left him was a box set that bends, but never quite breaks.

Nearly all the hidden treasures are hers.

STANDING TALL (Lesley Gore, R.I.P.)

LGORECOVER

“Tom Doniphon, you listen to me. Where I go and what I do is none of your business. You don’t own me!”

(Vera Miles to John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–1962)

“Don’t tell me what to do/And don’t tell me what to say”

Lesley Gore “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)

DI: Fans have always told you how important song has been to them. Are you making “a statement” even today?

LG: No question about it. It’s the one song – after some 40 years, I still close my show with that song because I can’t find anything stronger, to be honest with you. It’s a song that just kind of grows every time you do it. It might mean one thing one year and “boom,” two years later, boy it can mean something else.

(Digital Interviews with Lesley Gore, May, 2003)

When the late Charlie Gillett published the first important history of rock and roll in 1969, he dubbed the flood of hit records by young women from the early and mid-sixties “Girl Talk.” However problematic that phrase was, it was positively enlightened compared to the “girl group” moniker which gained currency soon after and has been used as short-hand ever since by everyone from the boys’ club that re-defined rock ‘n’ roll’s quasi-official narrative in Gillett’s wake in strict accord with their own needs to those doctrinaire feminist scholars who are so often in the habit of accepting all the wrong things.

One group that never accepted the term was a number of the “girl group” participants themselves.

I don’t know how Lesley Gore felt about it, but Arlene Smith (14 when she basically invented the concept with the Chantels), Mary Weiss (15 when she defined the apotheosis with the Shangri-Las) and others always saw themselves as a vital part of a larger tradition and always understood that the term was meant, consciously or subconsciously, to segregate them from that tradition.

As it happened, it worked to separate them by more than gender.

Make of it what you will, but no other “genre” name in rock and roll or any other form of music has ever needed to not only cordon off its practitioners by gender, but also further subdivide them by race, age, number and anything else that can be brought to bear.

This was made somewhat easier by an odd circumstance. With the exception of Weiss, all of the concept’s signature lead group voices, were black (Smith, Shirley Owens, Ronnie Spector, Martha Reeves, Gladys Horton, Diana Ross, Darlene Love). Meanwhile, except for Dionne Warwick and Mary Wells, the signature solo voices were white (Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Petula Clark, Jackie DeShannon, Nancy Sinatra and, of course, Lesley Gore). So just in case gender wasn’t handy enough on its own, some of these voices could be conveniently cut from the bunch by race…or age…or number…or just vocal inclination.

Further divisions were managed by siphoning off various groups or singers into some other category (anything would do).

Wells, The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes were “Motown.” Clark, Springfield and Lulu (along with Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, big stars in England who had limited success in the States) were “British Invasion.” Warwick was “Supper Club Soul” or “Adult Contemporary.” Lee and Francis were “Teen Idols” (or “Countrypolitan” or just “Pop”) and so forth.

None of this was exactly untrue. I make the distinctions myself at times.

But the trick to the official rock and roll narrative was that, once separated from the already hidebound ethos, these outliers were never let back into their moment.

I mean, if you wanna start a fight with a Rock Critic, try calling Dionne Warwick (twenty-one when she recorded her first big hit) or Brenda Lee (fifteen when she recorded hers) a Girl Group singer.

The effect, when used in tandem with the “male-producer-as-svengali” syndrome I’ve addressed pretty relentlessly on this blog, was and is to blunt the force and magnitude of the first mighty surge of cultural power ever spear-headed by a collective of young women in the history of American music.

Or, for that matter, pretty much any age women anywhere.

In any cultural (as opposed to social or political) context.

Ever.

The effect of the “girl talk” moment, both as symbolism and underlying reality, was of that part of the audience which had fought their way to the front rows at Elvis and Jackie Wilson concerts in the fifties (and, yes, fainted at Frank Sinatra concerts in the forties, though in those days they mostly stayed in their seats), literally stepping forth from the audience and taking the stage themselves.

Few of them wrote their important hits (Smith and DeShannon were rare exceptions). Even fewer produced and none ever received proper credit. So, mostly, they seized the moment by singing.

Sing they did. Brenda Lee, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Darlene Love, Arlene Smith, Mary Weiss, Ronnie Spector, Jackie DeShannon. No genre, style or sensibility, however named, was ever graced with greater voices, and, amongst that cacophony, it fell to then seventeen-year-old Lesley Gore, she of the perfect pitch and Sarah Lawrence pedigree, to sing their anthem, the one record that most assuredly marked the future off from the past, even as the storm of the British Invasion (a genre, like any but the one Lesley Gore was slated into, where no distinction needed to be made between groups or individuals, men or women, teens or twenty-somethings, no matter how many of its acts were four or five guys with guitars) seemed to wash every other future away.

‘You Don’t Own Me,” (it’s title and ethos copped from a John Ford movie even in the unlikely event the songwriters never saw it) wasn’t her biggest hit.“It’s My Party” made #1, while “You Don’t Own Me” was stopped at #2 by the symbolic-as-hell and real-as-hell phenomenon that was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. It may not have even been her greatest vocal. I’m partial to “She’s a Fool” myself and there’s plenty of other competition.

But it’s the one that truly escaped time and found a life that was not and is not in any way bound by its original moment.

My memory plays tricks on me and I’ve never been able to track the quote down, but I’m willing to swear on anything you want that, somewhere, there’s an interview with Gore where she said it was also the one song she knew would be a hit.

When she was asked how she knew, she had a simple answer:

“Because I read my fan mail.”

Call her anything you want. Can’t mark the future off any plainer than that.

Time came for Lesley Gore today at 68.

Well…not really….

 

THE ICE IS STILL SLOWLY MELTING: NANCY SINATRA HAS A TALE TO TELL (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #30)

NANCYSINATRA4

The current issue of The Believer has an interview with Nancy Sinatra which continues a process of de-bunking one of the Fundamentalist Rock and Roll Narratives perpetrated by the Priesthood of the Svengali (an especially pernicious subdivision of the crit-illuminati).

Nancy was one of many pre-Janis, pre-Aretha female singers who were perceived as the product of some producer’s singular genius which would have worked just about as well with any other lucky girl said genius happened to pick from the bunch.

Over the last twenty years or so, the young women who (outside of their records) were given no voice in the early and mid-sixties when they re-made the world as surely as Elvis or the Beatles, have told their stories (the stories that everyone from Tom Wolfe to Rolling Stone assiduously ignored both in the moment and for a long time afterward).

Those stories have a lot of common themes, most of which are voiced below.

So, joining Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, Cher Bono, Mary Weiss and many others, Nancy once again assures us that, in the real world, people are not clay models or sock puppets being maneuvered about by mad geniuses (in her case Lee Hazlewood) however wonderfully talented those geniuses may have been. Unfortunately the entire interview is not available on-line, so I’ve pulled some choice quotes and highly recommend the issue (and the magazine generally) to those who can find and afford it:

On acceptance in the music industry:

NS: They had a lot of great artists join the label (Reprise) at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the womens movement or anything like that. They just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

On an enduring myth:

BLVR: At what point did Lee famously instruct you to start singing ‘like a fourteen-year-old girl who screws truck drivers’? (NOTE: Now there’s the crit-illuminati mindset and value system in a nutshell for you.)

NS: I don’t know where that twisted version of what said came from. I know that that’s been floating around in various forms for a long time. He said much more gently to me, ‘You’ve been married, you’ve been divorced, and people know that. They know that you know what’s going on in life, so you’ve got to behave on the record like you do know.’

On the working relationship between herself, Hazlewood and musical director Billy Strange:

NS: Lee’s lyrics were the guiding light for us, because he wrote these wonderful fantasies. Billy took them and put them to music. And what I did was follow along. The beauty of it was that I added enough to it to make it happen. Lee had done a lot of this stuff with other people and he didn’t get anywhere with it. Lee’s muse in those days was Suzi Jane Hokom. Suzi Jane sang on all those duets. And he sang with Ann-Margret and several other ladies. But it just didn’t have the magic that Nancy and Lee had. So I told him in no uncertain terms over the years that he really owes me a lot, too. He wasn’t the Svengali that he thought he was. So it was a symbiotic relationship that turned out some pretty damned special music. I’m proud of all of it and proud of my contributions to it.

On those fashion statements (though not this one, especially):

NancySinatra3

NS: All those clothes that I wore in the early 60’s were [Mary Quant’s]. I brought them from London to Los Angeles and wore them all around. At that point nobody knew what a miniskirt was, so I’d get people throwing me lines like ‘The tennis court is over there,’ stuff like that….And the fact that I ran into her when I was in London promoting those silly songs (from early in her career)–God’s hand must have been on my shoulder. I was at the right place at the right time. Little did I know that I would run into a song called “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and that I already had the outfits. I didn’t have to go shopping for them.

On her legacy:

NS: I’m very glad that I saw it and could take advantage of working with Lee. But I don’t know, honestly, if any other woman singing in those days would have tolerated the treatment from Lee that I put up with over the years. We had the classic love/hate relationship. I’m not ashamed to say that. I think he would say the same thing.

Just as a final note. Hazlewood passed away in 2007 from cancer. Like Shadow Morton and Sonny Bono and most of the others who either sought Svengali-hood or had it thrust upon them in that age-gone-by, he was a man who had his faults, many of which he owned up to in time. He was not, like Nancy’s close friend Phil Spector or England’s Joe Meek, a monster. Like all of them, man or monster, he made beautiful records….

 

 

THE BRITISH INVASION (Great Vocal Events In Rock and Roll History, Volume 1)

Okay, back to the mission here with a new category.

Yes, this past week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles arriving in America, but it also, of course, marks the same anniversary of the beginning of what came, almost instantly, to be called the “second British Invasion” and then came (in the instant after that) to be called the British Invasion.

For shorthand historical purposes, this latter phrase has ever since referred to the tide of British acts who followed immediately in the Beatles path to success in America. Like pretty much every other rock and roll moment/movement between the early fifties and the early nineties, this “British Invasion” was, first and foremost, carried along by singers. It might seem self-evident that this is so, but most of what’s ever been written about the great changes the Beatles (and the Invasion in general) wrought have tended to focus on anything but singing, focusing instead on the rise of self-contained bands, the genius of the best bands being defined as those who wrote the best songs, the veneration of guitar gods, how witty and engaging some of the lads were in press conferences, whether the Beatles really were bigger than Jesus and so forth.

But the British Invasion finally rose and fell on great singing, just like nearly every other significant development in rock history before and after. So I thought I’d round up a list of some of the key vocal performances from 1964–66 that set the standards–and the limits–of just how far this thing proved it could go as commerce and/or art.

I think I included every really formidable singer from the Invasion proper who had any success at all on this side of the pond, though, of course, most of these made many other great records, so bear in mind this is only a representative sample. (I listed lead singers for groups and harmony singers where I thought they added something significant to the record. Also, where possible, I tried to find some interesting live version of the song in question for a link. But if you only want to close your eyes and listen to one, I’d recommend “It’s My Life” which is played off the original 45 and sounds superior to any CD mix I’ve heard.)

[Final note: This list is very roughly chronological but it’s really more about the gradual opening up of psychic space, as opposed to dates on a calendar….If you want to believe that’s code for “I’m way too lazy to look up every single one of these recording dates!” well, I won’t exactly give you an argument.]

“I Want To Hold Your Hand”–The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, lead vocals): The kick-starter and a true update of the Everlys, with John and Paul as indistinguishable from each other’s heartbeats as they would ever be on record. They were never able to repeat the magic of this one live because (at least in every performance I’ve seen) they always stood at separate mikes and rather far apart. Fortunately for us, them and the world, the space they clearly needed on stage disappeared in the recording studio.

“She Loves You”–The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, lead vocals, George Harrison, harmony vocal): Sheer rhetorical brilliance. Here were the Beatles, on their second big American single, claiming a special kinship (reinforced by the passion and intimacy of the harmonies) with the sort of staunch young female who made them a cultural phenomenon to begin with. It was a kinship they (John in particular, though Paul’s oft-expressed “well-it-would-be-nice-if-they-only-screamed-at-musically-appropriate-times” attitude speaks volumes as well) frequently made a point of disowning the moment it was commercially safe to do so. But the record itself was somehow both thunderous and sublimely intimate in its moment and has remained so in every moment since.

“I Only Want To Be With You”–Dusty Springfield: Dusty hit the charts the week after the Beatles with a record that very likely would have been an American hit in any case, providing, as it did, an instant bridge between the then reigning girl group sound and the blue-eyed soul waiting just around the corner. A solo vocal that sounds like a wave crashing on the beach. Only you, Dusty, only you.

“House of the Rising Sun”–The Animals (lead vocal, Eric Burdon): Maybe it was the JFK assassination or the Beatles on Sullivan. Maybe it was the Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show. Maybe it was something else. But you could stake a fair claim on “the Sixties” really being born here. When a working class English kid could step up to the mike and deliver a blues vocal on a par with Muddy or the Wolf then all bets were off and confusion was bound to continue its reign long after the exhilaration faded.

“Do Wah Diddy Diddy”–Manfred Mann (Paul Jones, lead vocal): Okay, an epic vocal on “House of the Rising Sun” is one thing, but this couldn’t possibly have been what Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich had in mind when they wrote this.

“You Really Got Me”–The Kinks (Ray Davies, lead vocal): Dave Davies’ ripped-and-ready guitar chords get most of the love, but, great as all that is, it’s also mostly a fine variant on things Link Wray and Paul Burlison and Lonnie Mack had already gotten up to (in some cases, years before). But Ray’s vocal really was something new and astonishing, a maelstrom of self-pity turned on its head so that the anger always underlying such emotions comes boiling to the top in what was ostensibly a lyric designed to express the same aching sentiments as, for instance, Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me.” Here, the “sentiment” is basically along the lines of “if you don’t love me as much as I love you, I’ll punch you in the face.” There was one occasion later, on “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” where Ray even topped himself–there, he sounded both more plaintive and more dangerous at the same time. But this was the breakthrough.

“I’m Into Something Good”–Herman’s Hermits (lead vocal, Peter Noone): This swept aside Earl Jean’s version on its way up the charts. One of the uglier aspects of the British Invasion was that it temporarily brought back the practice of “cover” versions–i.e., a white version very specifically designed to sublimate the air play of a black original–which the original rock and rollers had laid to waste. Just to complicate things a bit further, though, some fair amount of the time the record by the highly marketable English lads was just as good (see the Moody Blues’ version of “Go Now,” co-opted from Bessie Banks, or Manfred Mann’s “Sha-la-la,” co-opted from the Shirelles, for other convincing examples; see the Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” co-opted from Irma Thomas, for one among many not-so-convincing examples). Case in point is that, at least on this record, Peter Noone actually sounded like a male version of a girl group singer. For a solid year after–and despite Noone’s more usual penchant for sounding closer to an especially adenoidal Music Hall escapee (“No Milk Today” and “Must To Avoid” very much excepted)–the Hermits battled the Dave Clark Five for second place among British acts on the American charts. Evidently, young women were not entirely immune to hearing a cute boy sing themselves back to themselves.

“Needles and Pins”–The Searchers (lead vocal, Mike Pender, harmony vocal Chris Curtis): A rare great harmony record by a Liverpool band other than the Beatles themselves (more about that below), and perhaps more noted now for its influence on American folk rock via twin six-string guitars that presaged the twelve-string jangle of the Byrds’ early hits. But the vocal shouldn’t be sold short, marking as it did a kind of link between the American folk movement and the folk rock that would explode a year later.

“Is It True?”–Brenda Lee: A bit of a cheat but only a bit. Obviously Brenda’s not British. But this was recorded in London with Mickie Most (likely England’s greatest record producer)** at the console and Jimmy Page (yes, that Jimmy Page) on guitar. No way any of that was happening without the Invasion and, based on the evidence, the LP Lee reportedly planned to make in England that never materialized is a great loss indeed. Beyond its own considerable value, notable for providing proof that British vocalists would not have to rely on American studio expertise when it was time to make great records on the assembly line. If the locals could hang with Brenda Lee, they could hang with anybody.

“Glad All Over”–Dave Clark Five (Mike Smith, lead vocal): The seeds of Power Pop and Glam. Also, about as subtle as a sledgehammer–an approach well-noted by many after it started making a whole lotta money. And lots of other people did make money going down this same path–though relatively few made similar magic.

“Downtown”–Petula Clark: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Suddenly, Brits other than Dusty Springfield (i.e., Brits who weren’t geniuses) could do Bacharach-style Orchestral Pop. Now things were getting serious! It turned out that–other than Dusty Springfield–really only Petula Clark could do it and that even she could only do it so transcendently this once. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it made a lot of American session pros a great deal more nervous than “I Want To Hold Your Hand” ever did. (And just how Pop was it? Well, I first heard it in a shopping mall when I was five, with Christmas decorations festooned all around…and I promise you it changed my life.)

“My Generation”–The Who (Roger Daltrey, lead vocal): Not a big hit in America initially but an anthem an awful lot of people took to heart precisely because of its stuttering vocal. A sixties’ version of the semi-articulate angst-ridden ethos James Dean had spoken to (and for) in a much more artificial context a decade earlier. (For an even more exhilarating version of the same basic world view, see “The Kids Are Alright.” For an even nastier one, see “The Good’s Gone.”)

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”–The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, lead vocal): The Stones had made some good records before this. Mick Jagger had even waxed a few really fine vocals. But, for the most part, the fuss they kicked up in the first year and a half of the Invasion is–musically speaking–a little hard to hear these days. The band smoked from the beginning, but early Jagger generally sang as though American English (especially black American English) was a foreign language he had learned phonetically. This is where he sold his soul to the Devil so he could complete with his idols, perhaps even surpass them. Compete he did. Surpass them he even perhaps occasionally did. Beginning in about 1973, the Devil got payback–he always does, whatever you decide to call him–but it was beyond belief while it lasted and it really did begin here.

“He’s Sure the Boy I Love”–Lulu: This was a remake–not simply a cover (as it was not designed to compete with the original on the charts and was not even released as a single)–of a Crystals’ hit on which Darlene Love had sung lead. Make that, the mighty Darlene Love. No way was Lulu supposed to dig in her heels and blow past Darlene Love (even if she was greatly assisted by a superior arrangement). But it happened. On a bit of album filler no less–and it is out of such miracles that cults are born and raised. Proof, if anybody needed it, that the Brits had a pretty deep bench.

“Look Through Any Window”–The Hollies (Alan Clarke, lead vocals, Graham Nash and Tony Hicks, harmony vocals): One interesting, little-noted fact about the Invasion was that, having been made possible by a great harmony vocal group, it produced relatively little great harmony singing aside from the Beatles themselves. While the Fab Four’s own vocal impact in America was enormous (with implications that stretched from the Byrds in ‘65 to Buckingham/Nicks’ era Fleetwood Mac in the seventies to the Bangles in the eighties, and that’s just scraping the surface), only one of the British harmony groups who arrived in their wake were remotely in their league. This was their best early record and if they–or anyone–bettered it later on, it wasn’t by much.

“Gloria”–Them (Van Morrison, lead vocals): Displaced Irishman on his way to becoming the Invasion’s greatest singer howls at the moon and gives every garage band in the history of the world from that moment forward a reason to exist–not to mention hope. (Not to mention a break from playing “Louie, Louie”!)

“It’s My Life”–The Animals (Eric Burdon, lead vocal): “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” was just as great and certainly more iconic–it’s still the go-to record for anyone who wants to short-hand Viet Nam-as-nightmare. But I’m going with this one because it’s possibly the angriest vocal ever recorded. By the end of it, Burdon actually sounds like somebody who might stab you in the throat–but only if you get in his way.

“Gimme Some Lovin'”–The Spencer Davis Group (Stevie Winwood, lead vocal): The first instance of a popular record that involved speaking in tongues. Can’t say the idea caught on, but it’s still out there, waiting….

“Help” (John Lennon, lead vocal, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, harmony vocals) and “I’m Down” (Paul McCartney, lead vocal, John Lennon and George Harrison, harmony vocals)–The Beatles: Two sides of a 1965 forty-five. Side A featured John the acerbic rocker at his most vulnerable (he said in later interviews that he should have done it as a ballad). Side B featured Paul the romantic doing his crazed Little Richard imitation (and matching the original). All of which helps explain just how they were able to stay on top of this incredible wave for its duration.

“Friday On My Mind”–The Easybeats (Stevie Wright, lead vocal): Although an American studio confection who called themselves the Strangeloves made some classic, self-consciously primitive records while pretending to be Aussies (to exploit the Invasion, naturally), the first real Australian hit (albeit one recorded in England) was this garage-style classic from sixty-six. The only thing stranger than the combination of passion and opacity suggested by too much contemplation of a line like “Even my old man looks…good” is hearing Wright actually sing it. I might be delusional but, at this distance, I swear at least a hint of everything that bubbled up from down under afterwards is contained in this record: the Bee-Gees, Olivia Newton-John, AC/DC….whatever. I tilt my head this way and that and I hear it. Every bit of it. No really.

“Season of the Witch”–Donovan: A droogy, starry-eyed Scottish lad–who never did anything else even remotely similar–defines the future and names the era we’re still living in. Let’s just say that the psychological distance between this record and what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “the present,” is considerably less than the distance between this record and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” which had been recorded two years earlier. (Note: I reserve the right to pick this one again when I do my inevitable “Greatest Folk Rock Vocals” post!)

**(Most produced five of the records on this list and his range went from the Animals to Herman’s Hermits. Later on, his range went from “To Sir With Love” to “You Sexy Thing.” He really should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

PSYCHOLOGY 101 (Great Quotations)

Anybody who spends any time here at all knows I’m highly skeptical of the “Svengali” theory of rock (or just culture), which holds that pretty much every great vocal ever delivered by a “non-writer” in the last sixty years was coaxed by a record producer. This theory extends so far that it even takes in Elvis from time to time (especially in the Sun days).

But it is especially all-encompassing when it is applied to great records sung by young women of whatever ethnicity and produced by young white (or at least crit-illuminati approved) males. Read the standard rock “histories” and you might come away thinking that Mary Weiss and Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love and Mary Wells needed Shadow Morton or Phil Spector or Smokey Robinson to go to the bathroom for them.

Heck, even the likes of Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield weren’t immune, and, coming forward in time, neither were Donna Summer (who actually wrote many of her hits and produced more than a few, but that’s another story for another time) and Linda Ronstadt.

So it’s pretty funny to discover that, once upon a time, along about 1970, the one Rock-era, non-writing woman who pretty much is immune from this particular style of condescension found herself resisting a song that she didn’t think she could do anything with.

Here’s her producer, Richard Perry, from an interview in 2011:

“She wanted to cancel the session….I said ‘I’ll cancel the session right now if you want. But I can’t believe that Barbra Streisand would back down from a challenge.'”

The ploy worked. They didn’t cancel the session. And the challenge ended up being this:

The record (covering the great Laura Nyro) ended up being Streisand’s first top ten record since “People” in 1964, as well as the first (and best) of many rock-tinged hits (several of them duets with the aforementioned Ms. Summer) in the years following.

But she didn’t need to wait for the charts to validate her response to Perry’s challenge. To finish the quote:

“After we did the first take…I called her in for a playback because it was clear that this was going to be a very special record….And while it was playing, she whispered in my ear ‘You were right and I was wrong. But it’s nice to be wrong!'”

Okay, as Svengali moments go, it wasn’t exactly Phil Spector locking his wife in the house and making her watch Citizen Kane every single day, but I’m glad Perry was on the job this particular day…and I bet Barbra is too!

(NOTE: All this was brought to the forefront of my ever-wandering attention this week after Streisand’s “Back to Brooklyn” special ran last weekend during the local PBS station’s pledge week. She spent the first part pulling off an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Shangri-La in the year she hit with “People.” And both her voice and her singing (which way too many people need to be reminded aren’t quite the same thing) were better than I’ve ever heard them be. Which is saying something….And just as a final note, the intro to the video here is a tad strange, but I loved the sound….A needle dropping on Promo vinyl of a classic 45 and then running in the groove. Doesn’t get any better than that. UPDATE: Scratch that last, the video disappeared. Perils of YouTube. But you can still enjoy the record!)

TRACEY ULLMAN TAKES ME ACROSS A BRIDGE (Memory Lane: 2006)

First, a look at the picture sleeve of a forty-five:

TraceyULLMAN

Then the memory:

Between 2003 and 2007 I had what you might call problems.

I got diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in 2002, and was, not long after, told I had probably had it my entire adult life (which was roughly twenty years at that point). I was then further told I had severe Diabetic Retinopathy which needed immediate and extensive laser treatments, etc.

Then there was a year of seeing what I’ll politely call the “wrong” doctor, after which I was told I would need major surgery and was, in fact, worse off than I had been to begin with (even though my Glucose numbers had long since normalized).

I ended up getting a second opinion and moving on to a real doctor, under whose care I got better, though not enough better to avoid having the surgeries eventually. Too much damage and too much recurrence as it turned out. Something called Vitrectomies ensued. One for each eye.

That’s where they cut an incision in the eyeball, suck out the vitreous fluid, replace it with a saline solution, and scrape any residual scar tissue off your blood vessels.

They keep you awake so you can move your eyes if necessary, which means you can also see them picking the scar tissue off the back of your eyeball.

it’s as pleasant as it sounds.

By the summer of 2006, one way and another, between the disease and the treatments, I had lost about twenty percent of my eyesight, mostly on the periphery, though there was also a permanent hole in my right eye’s field of vision.

I had also been told for a good two years, by then, that I should have stabilized by now.

And I hadn’t.

So I had no reason to believe that I wouldn’t continue to lose my sight at a similar rate in the years ahead.

I had gotten past breaking down over it–had managed to remind myself, yet again, that Faith is not for the good times–but it still wasn’t exactly the cheeriest period of my life. Faith moved the mountain of despair a little, but many more days than not, I was much more afraid than not.

Coming home from my sister’s house in South Florida after a 4th of July visit in that summer of 2006–three years into a pattern of deterioration that seemed more and more likely to be permanent–part of me wanted to just get on home, like usual, which would mean–like usual–I-95 or the Florida Turnpike.

Another part of me wanted to head up U.S. 1 and cruise the old neighborhood where I was born and partly raised, because who knew how many more chances there would be?

That nostalgic part won.

Now, it happens I had cruised my “old” neighborhood (we left in 1974) before.

There were some pretty good reasons I no longer did it very often.

The working class community I grew up in was run into the ground. The space-race jobs that fueled the local economy had long since dwindled to a fraction of their former numbers and left the place on life support. The people I knew (and loved more than I knew, as it turned out) were long gone or, at very least, lost to my circle of acquaintance. The church I was saved in, testified in, sang in, heard my mother sing in and saw my father ordained in, had–according to the sign anyhow–gone from Southern Baptist to some sort of utilitarian symbol which I assumed meant non-denominational though I never researched the matter fully.

Some things are better left undone.

For whatever reason, this particular day, I was willing to risk the company of an even blacker dog than the one that was already riding me to see just how much further things had gone downhill.

No explaining it. Maybe I just wanted to at least feel the place again.

After all, there was no way to know how many more times I would have the option of ignoring it.

Whichever direction I had gone that day, I had music for the occasion–a set of cassette tapes with a lot of my old 45s (none of them bought until I moved away and found I needed something to fill the space left by all the things I no longer belonged to, call it “community” if you like) captured on them.

I had recorded the tapes with no particular rhyme or reason. Just stuff I liked well enough, some time or other, to buy on a piece of plastic, and still liked well enough, all those years later, to record for driving music.

It was a true mix-tape.

All of which meant that I had little idea of what was coming next when I drove over a bridge just south of the hospital where I was born and a beautiful, peaceful view of the Indian River (which, to tell the truth, doesn’t often conjure romantic notions) on an early Sunday afternoon opened up.

Just as that view filled my somewhat impaired vision, what came up on the tape was Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know,” a tribute to the girl group era which she, having been born almost exactly a year before me, must have just missed (like me) and, given the improbable heart she put into both the single and the album it was drawn from (the oughta-be-immortal You Broke My Heart In 17 Places) must have also (like me) regretted missing on some very personal level.

It might have been just a nice moment, except that some combination of that song and that view of the river and that set of memories made me think, unbidden:

“If this is all there’s going to be, it’s okay.”

I didn’t really do much cruising of the old neighborhood that day, or any day since. And a year or so later, I figured out it was the diabetic medicine I was taking that was making my eyes bleed. I had to argue with a lot of doctors, of course, but I stopped taking the medicine. The round of laser treatments-shots-surgeries ended soon thereafter and hasn’t resumed.

To date, I haven’t lost any more eyesight. Well, not much anyway.

Things worked out, in other words. At least as much as they ever do. The mountain moved…just enough.

But those things that eventually worked themselves out–and which I had no way of knowing ever would in the summer of 2006–weren’t what brought me a last measure of peace.

What brought me that peace was driving over a bridge next to the Indian River, just south of the hospital where I was born, and, at that exact moment, hearing Tracey Ullman–a woman who got justifiably famous in the years hence by dint of a sheer, undaunted genius for never taking anything seriously (not even a talk show interview, which takes some doing in the Age of Narcissism)–put everything she had into a song that might have been designed to do any number of less-than-admirable, campy, things (and might have even accomplished some of them, these little bits of genius being what they are), but which she sang as though she fully intended to live up to Mary Weiss and Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love and didn’t much care who knew it.

And for one moment–luckily for me–live up to them she did.

(And, hey, it’s Tracey Ullman, so the video is hilarious…but, for a markedly different experience, don’t be afraid to put yourself in my shoes and close your eyes one time through.)

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN….(Volume Six)

“Rock And Roll Lullaby”
1972
Artist: B.J. Thomas
Writers: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

B.J. Thomas “Rock and Roll Lullaby” (Studio recording)

“According to one theory, punk rock all goes back to Ritchie Valens’s ‘La Bamba.’ Just consider Valens’s three-chord mariachi squawk up in the light of ‘Louie, Louie’ by the Kingsmen, then consider “Louie, Louie’ in the light of ‘You Really Got Me’ by the Kinks, then ‘You Really Got Me’ in the light of ‘No Fun’ by the Stooges, then ‘No Fun’ in the light of ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ by the Ramones, and finally note that ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ sounds a lot like ‘La Bamba.’ There: twenty years of rock & roll history in three chords, played more primitively each time they are recycled.”

(Lester Bangs, “Protopunk: The Garage Bands,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1980 edition)

“Like I said, that’s the saddest song I’ve ever sung. It’s supposed to be a true song, too. And I believe it. Back when I was a boy, if a girl got pregnant, she never did return home. Not pregnant and single. She just wasn’t welcome….It was the first song I learned, but I can’t hardly sing it now, because it’s so possible. Because it happened then, and it could still happen now.”

(Charlie Louvin, describing his childhood experience of learning to harmonize “Mary of the Wild Moor” with his brother Ira, Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, 2011)

In 1972, attempts to limit the world’s understanding of what “rock and roll” was, were becoming more self-conscious by the day. The paragraph above–written a few years later by the only rock critic with a legitimate claim on genius–exemplified these attempts as neatly as anyone ever could. Note how a “theory” of “punk rock” at the beginning of one sentence moves swiftly and inexorably to “rock & roll history” at the beginning of the next. Given the dubiousness of the premise–three-chord “primitivism” as the only rock and roll that matters–you can’t get any neater than that.

*  *  *  *

In 1972, everyone also knew what to think about girls who got themselves pregnant without catching a husband.

For the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve (who dominated the North Alabama world Charlie Louvin grew up in), she was a fallen woman.

For the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate (who dominated the world Lester Bangs operated in as a critic) she was a social project.

For the vast Middle-Which-Does-Not-Rock-The-Boat-Ever (the world most of us live in, toiling along, forever getting the government we deserve) she was best left unnoticed. Out of sight, out of mind. To be spoken of in whispers if at all.

She had an ongoing place in the history of popular music to be sure–and one did not have to reach back to “Mary of the Wild Moor” to know where she stood.

As recently as 1969, Dolly Parton, just then establishing herself as a legitimate genius of country music, had written what would turn out to be likely the most powerful song of her career about the very subject. It was called “Down From Dover,” and Parton matched the death-dealing, heart-clutching lyric to one of her greatest vocals. She updated the social and musical traditions she had grown up on with the tenderest of all possible care. She brought all the pathos of the mountain ballads, mournful and endless, often stretching to dozens of verses, down to a manageable commercial length without sacrificing anything vital in the way of emotional impact or telling descriptive detail. She took a decided leap in a brilliant songwriting career that already included “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” and “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy.”

What she did not do, was release it as a single.

What she also did not do–and which was probably related to relegating what she must have known was a song she would never better to an album cut–was break the cycle of pain and death inherent in the tradition.

Admittedly, in “Down From Dover,” it’s only the “illegitimate” child that dies. That was a merciful step past “Mary of the Wild Moor,” which killed off the mother, the child, and the grandfather who leaves them to freeze to death in the snow when his daughter attempts to return home.

But it was evidently still too strong for country radio, which, in those days, always had a place for murder ballads and such. I mean, 1973 wasn’t very different and, in that year, Tanya Tucker could top the charts with a chilling, off-hand reading of “Blood Red and Going Down,” which tells the tender tale of a ten-year-old girl (Tucker herself was fourteen at the time) tagging along behind her Daddy while he tracks down his wife and her lover and leaves them “soaking up the sawdust on the floor” in an Augusta bar-room.

For that, there was room.

Just not for unwed mothers–at least not those rendered as sympathetically and realistically as Parton’s.

Over at Top 40 radio–from a few years earlier–there was another recent twist on the theme–told from the perspective of the Supremes’ “Love Child.”

Nobody dies in that one, but–#1 hit or not–it’s clear from the dread and shame in Diana Ross’ voice as she’s fending off the advances of a potential baby-daddy, that no possible good can come of it:

“No child of mine will be wearin’, this name of shame I been bearin’”….

That was how it was in 1966–not to mention 1966 B.C.

It was no different in 1972.

*  *  *  *

I’m not sure how much better it is now. Maybe we really are a little more thoughtful and forgiving. Maybe we are more empathetic and civilized. Maybe it only seems that way from certain carefully guarded perspectives. It’s hard to turn a tradition thousands of years in the making on its head in an instant. And the uglier the tradition the harder the turning often is.

But Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil gave it a try.

They took on the truly momentous rock and roll responsibility (if you want to call it the burden of the revolution you won’t get an argument from me) of giving voice to the voiceless and then had the nerve to give their song a title evidently designed to make advocates of punk primitivism as the only rock and roll that matters grind their filed teeth to paste.

Then they wrote a song so powerful almost no one has ever bothered to deny its classic status even if it does turn the most comfortable narratives sideways and upside down–complete with a wash of “sha-na-nas” lifted from rock’s oft-despised (by everyone from the old Tin Pan Alley crowd to the new-left folkies to the mock-intelligentsia forever gathering ’round the Beatles and such to today’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee) tradition of nonsense group vocals.

Mann told the song’s producer Steve Tyrell that he heard “old sounds” in the lyric and suggested they get the session guitarist to play like Duane Eddy.

Tyrell heard old sounds, too.

He said, “why not get Duane Eddy?”

Things only got more ambitious from there.

What they ended up with was a record that sounded absolutely constructed, layer by loving layer–not just Eddy’s bottomless guitar part, likely the emotional pinnacle of his monumental career, but background support from Darlene Love’s Blossoms and ex-Diamond Dave Somerville, carefully modulated dead-ringer early-and-late Beach Boy arrangements, Barry Mann himself on the piano, the lushest possible orchestration–and also as if it had been breathed into the world in an instant.

Why Mann and Weil chose to write a song redeeming abandoned single mothers and their children–to that moment, possibly the most doomed and despised sub-group in the history of doomed and despised sub-groups–I do not know. That they even thought it was possible seems a bit nervy and mysterious–unless, of course, you know (as they certainly did) the actual history of rock and roll, which, more than anything else, is the history of speaking up. The few interviews I’ve heard or read from them over the years have–perhaps understandably given the full weight of their accomplishments (they wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” among voluminous others)–bypassed this particular record.

So maybe they had some special attachment to the situation…or maybe they just figured it was time.

I could be wrong, but somehow, I don’t think it was just that week’s assignment.

It says something, for instance, that they chose to write it from the perspective of the fatherless child, now grown up. That deliberately placed “the event”–and the teenage mother’s dilemma–closer to the social realities of the nineteen fifties than of 1972, when there might at least have been a commune waiting for her somewhere. It thus very specifically and pointedly pushed the concept of “rock and roll” back to its own beginnings–when the audience, more so than any self-appointed intellectual class or marketing department or even the artists themselves–was deciding not so much what rock and roll was (as a form of music) as what it was going to mean to their lives (which they were determined to make matter).

In a rhyme scheme as tick-tock perfect as any Tin Pan Alley ever produced, the Brill Building grads inserted the key into the secret chambers of the rock and roll heart and said, in everything but words, that “Love Me Tender” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” were every bit as much “rock and roll” as “Jailhouse Rock” and “Tutti Frutti.” That the Platters and “In The Still Of The Nite” mattered just as much as Chuck Berry and “La Bamba.”

That, in fact, this had been the point.

So, in addition to pushing back against the cruel tide of human history, “things were bad and she was scared but whenever I would cry, she’d calm my fears and dry my tears with a rock and roll lullaby,” also pushed back even harder against the increasingly hide-bound–and increasingly suffocating–mantra of its own moment, and, in doing so, asserted in no uncertain terms that rock and roll, more than any art that preceded it, offered something very like salvation for its audience.

All of its audience–not just the part recognized by white boys fighting out its “meaning” in college dorm rooms and the pages of Rolling Stone.

What resulted was a record that seemed, on the surface, too perfect to not reach the top of the charts and take its place as a permanent staple at oldies’ radio.

Of course, surfaces often tantalize and delude and that sort of inevitability often rides a curse.

“Rock And Roll Lullaby’s” fate certainly proved all that.

Well on its way to the fate it richly deserved, its distribution was undone by the financial collapse of B.J. Thomas’ record company, Scepter–a fate Scepter shared with many of the other record labels which had turned out the doo-wop and girl group sounds “Lullaby” was invoking, including, most particularly, Red Bird, the failure of which had destroyed the career of the Shangri-Las, who had surely given Mann and Weil a Zeitgeist to play into if anyone had. (If anyone wants to hear how a sixteen-year-old girl with a backbone ends up alone–pregnant or otherwise–they can listen to Mary Weiss singing “Never Again”–that’s the one where she begins by telling the boy he better not walk out on her again and ends by walking out on him–and get a pretty direct idea.)

The record ultimately stalled at #15. Not bad, and plenty of records, including Thomas’ own “The Eyes of a New York Woman” (which had topped out at #29 a few years earlier) have stayed in heavy rotation for decades following even less initial success.

But none of those records were fighting history.

So “Rock And Roll Lullaby” fell in between the cracks. A bit too popular (and Populist) to be a true cult item, far too strong to fit easily into any nostalgia format. Doubtless there are stations somewhere that play it. Maybe even a few that play it a lot. But in thirty-five years of listening incessantly to oldies’ stations across the country, I’ve never heard it on the radio once.

I’ve played it enough at my house to know it doesn’t really matter. A thousand random encounters between here and the grocery store or in rental cars on the way to Cleveland or Fort Worth or Memphis or Winston-Salem couldn’t possibly have dimmed it.

*  *  *  *

There’s a special reason for that last, a reason why the record simply can’t fade. A reason why the only way to deny its power is to throw up deliberate defenses, which might include “oh, we’re past all that now”…defenses you can bet will be broken down the minute you stop minding them. A reason found in a quality that actually transcends the perfect song Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote–a reason that skips right past two swift verses, a luminous bridge and a simple chorus repeated three times, gently, gently, ever-so-gently telling anyone who ever turned their back on need: “Shame on you.”

That reason was specific to rock and roll as well. Simply put, “Rock And Roll Lullaby” was B.J. Thomas’ genius moment.

Now even in rock and roll, not every good singer gets one. But it does happen more often in rock and roll than anywhere else (and by “anywhere else” I don’t mean just other forms of music).

You have a career. You make some good records, maybe quite a few. You practice your craft honorably and well. You build a loyal following that sticks with you for years, or even decades.

But you aren’t a genius. Not really.

So far, you could be doing anything.

But if you sang rock and roll while the revolution was still on track, there was always a chance that once or twice, somewhere along the way, you would be better than that. That sooner (say Carly Simon on “You’re So Vain”) or later (say Neil Sedaka on “Bad Blood”) or somewhere in between (say Dobie Gray on “Drift Away”) you would, for three or four minutes, be as great as anybody has ever been or ever will be.

Heck, sometimes you didn’t even have to be good or honorable or anywhere near having a career.

Rock and roll did that, too (here, I’ll let you fill in the name of your choice–no sense ticking anybody off!) It was a bit rarer than the romantic legends would have it, but it did happen.

I’ve always been fascinated by that other main chance, though. The professional’s main chance.

In a way that was a greater, rarer moment, because while it’s possible to believe that “Louie, Louie” or “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love)” or “The Book of Love” (okay I went ahead and named some but surely nobody could be ticked of by those examples!) really could have happened for almost anyone, “Rock And Roll Lullaby” could only have happened for someone very like B.J. Thomas–or maybe only for B.J. Thomas specifically.

In The Heart of Rock and Soul, his mostly invaluable celebration of the old-fashioned single, where he gave “Rock And Roll Lullaby” a deservedly high place, Dave Marsh described Thomas as being “not much better than a B-level country-rock hack on every other record he made.”

Sorry, Marsh wrote a wonderful book, but on this particular point, he’s dead wrong.

Thomas was a first-rate vocalist in the greatest era of recorded vocal music we’ve yet heard. No, he wasn’t a genius. Not usually anyway. But he had kicked off his chart career with a cover of a Hank Williams’ song that was both commercially successful and emotionally true. The first guy who tried that, fifteen years earlier, had only managed the easier half of the equation and he only turned out to be Tony Bennett.

So no, B.J. Thomas was not a genius, but he was damn good.

No “hack” could have stood in front of all that was going on in “Rock And Roll Lullaby’s” production–or gotten behind all that was going on in back of its lyric–and made it so thoroughly his own.

Neither could any one-off.

Maybe a genius could have done it…but even a genius couldn’t have made it sound as if they knew this was their lasting moment. Geniuses can’t afford to feel that way. That’s part of how they get to be geniuses: by believing that they can always go further and higher, or, at very least come back, again and again, to the furthest, highest place.

For “Rock And Roll Lullaby” to be as great as it is, though, it almost certainly needed to be sung by someone who sensed (even if they didn’t care to admit it) that the moment might never come again for them–that they would never reach any higher than this.

It took a pro for that–the very kind of craftsman who has been so often written out of rock history by those who decided rock and roll would be better off in the margins, untainted by the wearing and tearing necessities of compromise and other impurities inherent in social (as opposed to personal) relevance, and who, incidentally, have seen their wish come true.

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil have a claim on being geniuses. Duane Eddy has a claim on being a genius. So does Darlene Love.

They could all rightly, if arguably, claim this as the greatest record they ever worked on.

But of all the wonderful records that come from a particularly tricky place–the place where talent becomes genius for one precious, irreducible moment–“Rock And Roll Lullaby” is likely the greatest…and boldest.

And, though he has no other claim on being a genius himself, you can thank B.J. Thomas for that.