NEVER FEAR….

I ain’t dead.

As I have to do now and then, I apologize for light posting this week. Trying to put the finishing touches on a rock n’ roll detective novel which, with any luck I can start submitting next week. (If you have an agent and want to help a brother….yaddah, yaddah, yaddah). It’s the first short novel I’ve ever completed, which means I can submit to small publishers. That at least greatly expands my realistic possibilities. If there are any developments, you’ll hear about them here, I promise.

If the creek don’t rise, I should be back up to speed some time in the next few days.

Meanwhile, a little dedication for Easter…

THE SPIRIT OF ’65

CD Review:

Completely Under the Covers (2016)
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs

There’s always been a place in Susanna Hoffs’ voice that feels like 1965 and is all the more compelling for persistently suggesting that the only thing 1965 was ever missing was her.

This is four CDs worth of her indulging the premise.

Oh, Matthew Sweet is here also and that’s hardly insignificant (they call themselves Sid n Susie….cute). But I’ve never thought I’d be interested in hearing him sing the phone book. With Hoffs, be it lead or harmony, I’m not so sure.

Well there’s no phone book test here, just a bunch of great songs from the Sixties (Disc 1: The original Under the Covers from 2006), Seventies (Disc 2: Under the Covers, Volume 2, from 2009 and Disc 3: Outtakes from the same sessions) and Eighties (Disc 4: Under the Covers, Volume 3 from 2012).

I didn’t make a count, but I’ll guess she takes the lead about two-thirds, him about a third, with a few trade-offs and close harmony leads throw in.

It doesn’t all work, or anyway it’s not all outstanding. I wasn’t surprised because I’ve pulled up their collaborations here and there on YouTube over the years and while the song choices always seemed compelling, the actual performances were a little too true to the originals to really add anything obvious.

Still, I thought it might be more compelling to sit down and listen to them all at once so when this came up cheap on Amazon with my birthday rolling around I sprang for it.

I wasn’t wrong either time.

Listening close, listening all at once, it’s compelling enough to amount to some sort of vision: a quarter-century of white rock and roll re-imagined as a set of well-produced folk songs. Slick but (mostly) not too slick.

Despite the slightly salacious series title, there’s nothing like sexual heat or chemistry going on here and nothing remotely like the subliminal, rivalry-based anger that drove pretty much every one of the great harmony acts that were around in ’65 (Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Mamas & Papas, Simon & Garfunkel….all in all, not a happy bunch). I miss the heat. I miss the subliminal, which is so often the springboard for the sublime.

But this has a pull all its own. Some of it’s just the confidence that every song is tried and true. There’s no wondering if the tunes won’t work, especially since Sweet and Hoffs work only the tiniest variations on the originals. As the songs roll on–sixty in all, including fifteen bonus tracks not previously available–it’s those variations and their subtleties that take hold: Hoffs making rare use of her soprano for two magic seconds at the fade of “You’re So Vain” pulling the song backwards and forwards at the same time while also making it do something it never quite did before, which is hurt; the gentle subversion of refusing to either switch the gender for “Maggie May” and (following Linda Ronstadt) “Willin'” or just give them to the guy; the shift from Love’s “Alone Again Or” to Bran Wilson’s “The Warmth of the Sun” that actually feels like it’s straight from a bar band stage at Ciro’s on a night when nobody wants to dance.

And, all the way up in the Eighties’ portion of the program, proof that the old alternative universe dream of Hoffs fronting the Go-Go’s (the better singer hooking up with the greater band), was, like so many alt-universe dreams–including those being dreamed from left to right in this new world we’ve made–a false flag. All this version of “Our Lips Are Sealed” does is suggest that, in our non-alternative reality, Belinda Carlisle really is some kind of genius.

That’s how it goes throughout. The highs and lows chase each other around without leaving any indication that there could ever be a consensus on exactly which is which. The notion of a place where there’s a home for Yes and the Clash, the Who and James Taylor is just as mixed up and confused as you might fear and as oddly reassuring as you might hope.

Music for these times then?

I honestly wasn’t sure until I got to the middle of the third disc–all outtakes–and, with Sweet taking the lead and Hoffs pushing him from underneath the way Jackie DeShannon might have pushed Gene Clark if God had been on the ball in, yeah, ’65, and had them do an album of duets where they submerged their personalities into each other and the spirit of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” even if the song wasn’t yet available.

It’s a song Nick Lowe wrote in 1974 about the spirit of ’65, an unofficial sequel to the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” (which, by some unfathomable mystery, is missing from this set). A short time after, Elvis Costello and the Attractions turned it into an anthem of pure fury and one of the greatest rock and roll records ever made. You can hear those versions here:

Since then, there have been a boatload of other covers. You can chase those around YouTube all day long if so inclined, but, if not, I’ll just pull up the other two good ones I found here:

That gives you some idea of the song’s flexibility…its own ability to reach forward and back.

If you listen close to Costello’s version, you can even hear that old Byrds’ jangling guitar–the secret language of white rock for the last fifty years–chiming throughout…and breaking loose in the bridge.

Now what I can’t do is post Sid n Susie’s studio version, which hit me this week the way “Turn, Turn, Turn” hit me in the spring of ’78, when I got my high school diploma and my first copy of The Byrds’ Greatest Hits in the space of about twenty-four hours.

I can’t post it because it’s not on YouTube yet and I’m not into posting music there. Maybe I should be. Because, as things stand, I heartily recommend that you avoid the live versions which are posted and give no hint of anything but professional boredom.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to take my word for it that, without Matthew Sweet being anywhere near a Byrd (or Elvis Costello) vocally, or the band being anywhere near able to generate the Attractions’ mind-meld, Sid n Susie made me feel the gap between 1965 and now like nothing I’ve heard in decades. Like it still might be possible–just…and just for a moment–to wake up tomorrow and find that Peace, Love and Understanding had finally, in the moment when the children of ’65 have so far lost their minds that they’re holding their breath waiting for the CIA to save the Republic and the next Democratic Congress to convene anti-anti-communist versions of HUAC hearings, become not so funny at all.

It’s almost enough, all by itself, to redeem the idea of spending this last horrific decade treating rock and roll as folk music with which black people had nothing to do while pretending that such oversights are in no way responsible for our current predicament.

Well, that plus doing right by bubbling unders from the Left Banke….

 

SHELTER FROM THE PRESENT STORM (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #91)

Yeah, yeah. When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me and, for reasons best explained here, I seek Tracey Ullman’s version of “They Don’t Know,” on YouTube. You know, the one with the Paul McCartney cameo.

While I’m there, I usually chase down a few other versions, of which there seem an endless supply. Even with my recent discovery of Susanna Hoffs taking a lovely crack at it in her “it’s always 1965” voice, I know the song will forever belong to Ullman, or anyway to her and writer/originator Kirsty MacColl, who sang the backing track and got off that glorious “bay-bee” in the bridge.

But this time around, I found a muddy, live version by Kim Wilde, done at a tribute for MacColl, who was killed in a boating accident in 2000, when she was 41. I’m guessing Tracey had a commitment elsewhere she couldn’t break (she and MacColl were reportedly great friends), but even she couldn’t have done better that night. The sound is a shame, but if you stick with it, you’ll get a smile in these times of trouble. Maybe along about the time the audience gets off a “bay-bee” to match Kirsty’s ghost.

I promise….

 

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Bangles Up)

“Set You Free”
The Bangles (1989)
Foreign market single version
Recommended Source:The Bangles’ Greatest Hits

banglessetyoufree1

The last great harmony vocal by the last great harmony vocal group, “I’ll Set You Free” was originally featured on the Bangles’ last album released before their initial breakup (1988’s Everything). The version featured here (and available on the album linked above) is a remix (by Bernard Edwards no less) featuring a new lead vocal by Susanna Hoffs, which was later variously released as a single in overseas markets as either a farewell to their fans or a not unreasonable attempt by the record company to milk a final hit from the group, depending on who’s telling the tale. In any case it was never released in the U.S. and didn’t take off anywhere else, barely scraping the  charts in Australia and the U.K.

There’s a tale in that. The Bangles were almost single-handedly responsible for keeping Everly/Beatles’ style vocal harmony alive as something more than seasoning for synth-sounds throughout the eighties. When they were gone from the charts, so was the harmony ethos that the Everlys had so literally and improbably brought down from the mountain in rock’s early dawn.

Modernity preferring histrionics (which harmonies tend to harness), monotonously rigid rhythm structures (which harmonies tend to undermine) and supreme self-involvement (which harmonies tend to disperse), this record marked the end of an era. Like most of the endings we fail to observe at our peril, i.e., those that mark the loss of something vital within ourselves, it passed unnoticed at the time.

Except maybe by the people who sang it.

 

MY FAVORITE HARMONY GROUP SINGER: ROCK AND ROLL DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.

With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic  and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.

So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):

The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.

That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.

Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)

If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.

As for a favorite?

Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.

You just have to think of a little test.

Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?

You, Carl. Only you.

I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.

[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]

 

BANGLING (Memory Lane: The Bangles In the Eighties)

Back in the mid-eighties, some curmudgeonly grad-student who reviewed music for my local college newspaper (now long-defunct…I don’t know about these days, or even if they still have college newspapers anymore, but in those days curmudgeonly grad-students were pretty much standard issue for the music gig at a college paper), mentioned that the newly popular Bangles had left their best days behind them (as pretty much all bands do, of course, when they sell too many records to be a secret curmudgeons can keep to themselves anymore), and those of us not in the know should really hear their first LP, the one that hadn’t sold, or better yet, their one-and-only EP (which featured the standard “departed member”) or even better still, the truly obscure cover they had done of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”

I either already had, or soon acquired, that first LP which really is their best and also really is one of the greatest albums ever made.

Soon after that, I found their EP, which was pretty fine, too.

Then I spent the ensuing thirty years buying whatever else they made and keeping a permanently frustrated eye out for that elusive Dylan song.

Since I couldn’t find it–or even a reference to it–anywhere, even in the age of YouTube and the internet, I finally decided that the curmudgeon must have made a mistake and meant to refer to their non-LP version of the Grassroots’ Dylanesque knockoff “Where Were You When I Needed You,” which had showed up on the band’s various best ofs over the years.

In other words I thought I was done with it.

Then this week arrives and I’m idly searching for something or other that leads me to a Greil Marcus column which is posted at his website (and which I would have seen a few years ago if The Believer, God love ’em, had let out another entry or two from behind the firewall) and, lo and behold, I find I’m not done with it at all.

Turns out the Bangles (or maybe just Susanna Hoffs), had done a Dylan song in 1984. Only it wasn’t “I Shall Be Released,” but “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” meaning I either misread, misremembered, or relied a bit too foolishly on the reading or remembering skills of a curmudgeonly grad student way back when).

And because we live in an age when YouTube is pretty much the only step forward mankind has made since at least 1980, I was even able to follow the link and hear the actual song, which, at least when you listen to the video version Marcus recommends, is everything he says it is and everything I might have wanted it to be after thirty years of waiting. (And in case you don’t care to follow the link, you can see and hear it in it’s all-everything-ness right here and now…)

Then you can go back, pre-fame, pre- anything but the naked ambition to forget the seventies ever happened and pick up the thread everybody else had let go and see where it could take them….

..or you can go forward, to five minutes before the standard-issue acrimonious breakup, when they were everything they ever wanted to be, including quite possibly the best rock and roll band in the world….I mean, laugh if you want, but do you really think anybody else could have come this close to proving it by way of Simon and Garfunkel?

Yeah, me neither….

 

CNN SENDS ME OFF TO A DARK AND DREARY PLACE WHERE I THEN HAVE TO FIND A WAY TO CHEER MYSELF UP….AND ME AND THE BANGLES AND SUSAN COWSILL SOMEHOW MANAGE…WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM THE REAL ELVIS (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #22)

CNN kicked off its series on “The Sixties” tonight with an hour on the British Invasion. Despite the presence of some fine music clips (which apparently couldn’t be helped) and a single, spirited, un-sourced moment from the period that had Graham Nash and Peter Noone debating whether pop music had the power to prevent World War Three (Nash in favor of the motion, Noone opposing) it was dreadful.

Maybe at some point I’ll acquire it and re-visit it long enough to dwell on all the reasons why. Depends on how firmly it stays stuck in my craw. The best I can say for it right now is that they didn’t actually come up with any new falsehoods–though they sure did string the existing, fossilized notions together fast and furiously, after the manner of warding off evil spirits.

For now, suffice it to say they did not attribute the Beatles’ smashing success to their combination of real musical genius and their special position of being–unlike virtually every other major pop star reigning over the American charts at their moment of arrival–neither black nor hillbilly nor urban immigrant nor (gasp) female. Or that the curious hold they have had on the intelligentsia from their moment of arrival (a hold completely unacknowledged in the special, which portrays them as “outsiders” facing the same kind of across-the-establishment-board opprobrium as the first generation rockers who inspired them) is surely as much due to this fact as to their undoubted musical genius.

Not that I was holding my breath or anything, but it would have been nice to have at least one countervailing, or merely skeptical, voice!

Anyway, the one sort of compelling bit for me was a handful of brief interview snippets with Susanna Hoffs, lead singer of the Bangles.

Like everyone else, she lacked for anything very interesting to say…But I realized it was the first time I had ever really heard her speak at length and I was struck by how disconnected her speaking voice is from her singing voice.

This isn’t at all common. Most really good singers, like most really good actors, carry the essence of their performing style in their every day voice and, much as I love Hoffs’ music, I might not have pursued it any further or thought of it as anything but a quirky anomaly…except…

Except that ever since I had my Cowsills’ kick a few months back, I’ve been working on a tantalizing theory (okay, tantalizing for me if not for anyone else) that, in the early eighties, when Vicki Peterson went looking for a lead voice for the Bangles, she might have, at least subconsciously, been looking for a replacement for her best friend at the time…

Who happened to be (and still is) Susan Cowsill.

Who also happened to be in all likelihood unavailable herself because she was then Dwight Twilley’s significant other and a member of his road band…Unlikely to quit her day job in other words.

There’s probably never going to be a way to prove my little theory, but I do know that the first time I pulled up this–Susan’s first solo single, recorded when she was seventeen and released in 1977 (or thereabouts)–I was immediately struck by how much she sounded like a slightly more laid-back, seventies-era version of Susanna Hoffs.

Or, to be more accurate, I was struck by how much a slightly revved-up, eighties-era version of Susanna Hoffs, adjusting for the full weight of the Bangles’ hair-raising harmonies behind her, sounded like Susan Cowsill.

This time, after I played Susan’s song a few times, I started searching around for some of Hoffs’ vocals (just to make sure I wasn’t kidding myself) and found the expected evidence (proof enough to my ear anyway, not that I really needed it…I’ve had enough Bangles’ kicks in my life to know I wasn’t imagining things).

And that led me to this, a slightly altered, knockout arrangement of “Eternal Flame” which I’m posting not so much because it proves a little part of my theory (there are plenty of examples that do it better) as because I like it so much…and because I now really wish they had used this stripped down arrangement on the record (which I love anyway…but from now on I’ll always hear what might have been):

And, lovely as all that is, I still might not have posted anything….

Except that chasing Bangles’ videos led me to a lengthy interview with Hoffs, which is worth hearing in any case, but which I’m linking especially for my Elvis fans…because the way she lights up when she briefly talks about Graceland between the 6:30 and 7:30 marks says as much about why the flame won’t die as any thousand scholarly essays ever will (you can fast forward to that segment if you don’t want to listen to the rest…Hope you’ll get as big a kick out of it as I did).

I’ll definitely write more about the Cowsills in the future…at very least a review of the documentary about them which came out a couple of years ago. I’m a sucker for “might have been” stories and few people have a better one. And, as I’ve said before, Susan Cowsill has led an epic American life, in which little asides like possibly inspiring the revolution’s last really great vocal group are basically par for the course.

Maybe this will get me fired up for that little project again.

Then at least I’ll have something to thank CNN for…Well, besides leading me to all this.