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….

 

LIVING IN THE PAST (John Glenn and John Lennon, R.I.P.)

Well, now they’ll share a death date. It’s not likely they shared much else, except being representative–even definitive–icons of two generations that were destined to clash.

Lennon was literally born with German bombs falling on Liverpool. Glenn was one of those duty-bound to save a space for him to dream in. I wouldn’t venture to guess what, if anything, they thought of each other.

I put most of my feelings about the dichotomous impact of the “greatest generation” and its offspring here, the last time an astronaut and a sixties’ singer were linked in death. Obviously, the analogy isn’t perfect. Neil Armstrong and John Glenn punch at about the same weight, but John Lennon was a far greater figure than Scott MacKenzie, though, perhaps for that every reason, no more representative of my points, such as they were.

Like millions of others, I got the news of Lennon’s horrible murder from Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford on Monday Night Football. You can measure how long ago that was by noting that MNF was still a big deal, airing on a major broadcast network. You can get a further measure by noting that “major” and “broadcast” are not concepts that attach to any television network these days. The cultural and political coherence that made winning the space race and Beatlemania simultaneously plausible has now shattered in every possible way.

Other than the real horror in Cosell’s voice, the lasting memory I have of Lennon’s death was the numbness–“Hell, it wasn’t like he owed me money,” one of my college friends said, when another one asked us what we thought about it and I couldn’t articulate a reply. We all laughed and shrugged. Ronald Reagan had been elected to put a happy smiley face on our futures a month before. No sense getting all spoony about a hippie being shot down in the New York streets he, having once been a Beatle–some would say the Beatle–had become sufficiently deluded, perhaps by the dreaming he did in that space all those John Glenns had won, to believe he could walk without a body guard.

But that didn’t come close to the numbness I felt when one of the thirty-something NY natives interviewed on television promised Lennon’s death would be way-y-y-y bigger than Elvis’s. Struggling to put into words just why this was inevitably so, he didn’t mention that Lennon’s death had been truly shocking, while Elvis’s had an air of sad inevitability. He didn’t mention that the people who served the media (as opposed to those who ran it, who had no dog in the hunt) had a thousand times more love and respect for Lennon than they ever had for Elvis (Jann Wenner, then still editor of Rolling Stone, rather famously had to be convinced that Elvis’s death would even be a big deal…I doubt he needed any such assurance concerning Lennon).

No, he said: “I mean, they play the Beatles in elevators!”

Turned out, he thought the real reason the death of a Beatle would produce a longer and deeper mourning than that of Elvis, was because his music (or Paul McCartney’s anyway…I’m hearing “Yesterday” in those elevators) had met the bar for Muzak.

I predicted right then that Lennon’s death would generate nothing like the outpouring of grief that Elvis’s death had done, either right then, or in the future.

Right or wrong, fair or unfair, it didn’t and it hasn’t.

Me, I always remember, if only for the same reason I’ll always now remember when John Glenn died.

Stuff sinks in a little deeper when it happens on your birthday.

WHEN THE CENTER COULD STILL HOLD…AND WAS STILL WORTH HOLDING ON TO (Bobby Vee, R.I.P.)

bobbyvee1 He took Buddy Holly’s place (more or less) on the day the music died. He gave Bob Dylan one of his first jobs. He put nearly forty hits on the charts and took plenty of the dubious, often nonsensical, heat for “killing” rock and roll in the supposed wasteland years between Elvis going in the army and the Beatles arriving on our shores.

He took $500 he earned playing local shows to get his band from Fargo, North Dakota to Minneapolis and into a recording studio. I’ve made that drive. It’s longer than you think.

After that, he never looked back.

Today, during this awful year that refuses to die, he passed away, having outlived his wife of forty-two years by fourteen months.

His job in the rock and roll narrative was the same as his job in the rock and roll reality: To be the sane one.

It’s not the sort of job anyone ever gets credit for here–except maybe from all the others who have those same sort of jobs and know they get paid less in part because they don’t have to put up with quite as much nonsense.

Bet they know better in the next world.

Some Nobel Prize winners even know better in this one…

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AL GREEN’S STUNNING (MOSTLY UNNOTICED) ARRIVAL (Segue of the Day: 10/20/16)

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Since I had nearly all of Al Green’s Hi albums on vinyl it was only a few years ago (about the time I started sleeping in my den, where the modern stereo equipment is) that I decided to collect them on CD. The best, cheapest way to gather them up was in three four-album, two disc collections, issued by the oldies’ label Edsel, that put two albums per disc, in chronological order.

And what’s happened now is what often happens when things that used to be separated, mentally and physically, are run together and recontextualized.

It’s now possible, perhaps even spiritually mandatory, for me to hear Green’s first two LPs, Green is Blues and Al Green Gets Next to You, as a single expression of the broadest ranging, most penetrating vision of American vocal music anyone had put together since Green’s hero, Elvis, arrived at RCA in the mid-fifties. Hearing the albums separately all those years (and not really listening to the first one that much because it’s mostly covers and there is only so much world and time), I just thought they contained a lot of great music…and that Gets Next to You was the greatest southern soul/funk album anyone had ever made.

I haven’t changed my mind about the latter, but the total vision didn’t come clear until last night when I was listening on headphones to the first two-fer for maybe the tenth or twelfth time and I finally registered that Al Green, then twenty-three years old, had just gone Late Beatles, Gershwin (the last two cuts on Green is Blues), Early Beatles (a bonus track from the same sessions), Temptations (the first, monstrous cut on Gets Next to You). More than that, he had fully re-imagined every one of them, and turned every one of them into something larger and grander.

Later on, he would do much more–throw in Hank Williams, the Bee Gees, Lulu, a bit of Bo Diddley here, a bit of James Brown there and a world or two besides. Everything really. The size of the world.

Elvis’s truest inheritor then. open to everything and up for anything. It might not be purely coincidental that he walked away–back to the church his father had kicked him out of the house for turning his back on by blasting his Elvis and Jackie Wilson records–two heartbeats after Jackie was in a coma and one heartbeat after Elvis was in his grave.

And it’s all right there in the almost beginning:

I’m sure the world would have taken greater notice, made him something more than a southern soul star who crossed over and got raves at Rolling Stone and the Voice (rare enough, but nowhere near his true measure), if he hadn’t been a black man destined to make his records for a small southern label that depended on him for its survival.

It’s no use me blaming the Yankee heathens this time, though. I should have known better years ago.

Mea culpa.

QUEEN FOR A DAY…AND OH WHAT A DAY (Theresa Saldana, R.I.P.)

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(Theresa Saldana, Wendy Jo Sperber, Nancy Allen in I Wanna Hold Your Hand)

I just learned that Theresa Saldana, the actress who played enterprising reporter Grace Corrigan in 1978’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand, passed away in hospital a few weeks ago at age 61. I don’t have the heart to do much research, but, so far as I can tell, no cause of death has been announced.

Saldana has a fine list of credits, including Raging Bull and The Commish. But she could have been in every movie made since 1978 or never worked another day after IWHYH and I’d still remember her the same way. With Wendy Jo Sperber (1958-2005, breast cancer) and Nancy Allen, she made up the trio of high school girls at the heart of Robert Zemeckis’s otherworldly tribute to Beatlemania, which I wrote about at length here.

They were a magic threesome. America’s failure to respond to them or the film put paid to the last golden age of cinema as far as I’m concerned. The movies have been adrift right along with everything else ever since (okay, since 1980, but close enough!). Good things still happen, they’re just floating free, anchored to nothing and no one.

But, whatever the strengths of IWHYH or the rest of her career, Saldana was a rare actor whose career wasn’t defined by her work. She survived a horrific attack from a stalker in the early eighties and spent the rest of her life devoting perhaps her best efforts to helping pass laws to protect both real and potential victims of stalking. I saw I Wanna Hold Your Hand in a theater with my mother in the spring of 1978 in Dothan, Alabama. I doubt either one of us ever laughed harder. Hard as the road got for my mother in the years after, I know for a certainty that she never laughed that hard again. So if you had told me when I walked out of that theater that one of the actresses I had just seen would do more good in the world than she and her cohorts had just done for us, I would have called you a liar.

And I would have been wrong. I hope God’s blessing her tonight.

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MY FAVORITE TRULY OBSCURE B-SIDE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Easy Part: Define “B-Side.”

“The side of a 45 that was not meant for primary radio promotion…at least until some enterprising dee-jay turned the boring A-Side over and his audience started lighting up the switchboard.”

The most famous case of this was probably the process that, by means I can’t seem to track down in precise detail, led to this UK release…

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Being turned into this US release….

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and leading (many years after “To Sir With Love” failed to chart in Britain and was the number one American record for the year 1967 in Billboard) to the Scottish Lass’s priceless quote re American dee-jays: “Bless their cotton socks.”

Now here’s a trick.

Define “obscure.”

Then define “truly obscure.”

You’re liable to get deep in the weeds before you find any real agreement on that last. Your gem of obscurity, held close to the heart (or, if you’re a little paranoid, the vest, right next to your pearl-handled revolver), and heard by only a precious few in the History of Man, will be somebody else’s “Pfah! I’ve got five copies of that in my basement and I didn’t even start looking until I was twelve!”

But I’m a sucker for punishment so I’ll have a go.

First Rule: It can’t be anything by the B-Side kings: Elvis, The Beatles, The Beach Boys. They all routinely turned out B-sides that would have been career makers for anybody else. But even their worst or scarcest material isn’t obscure. So “I’m Down” and “Kiss Me Baby” don’t qualify. And neither does anything that doesn’t reek of genius.

Second Rule: It can’t be anything by a popular artist which has been given extensive exposure by cover versions or inclusion on “best of” compilations. None of this, then:

Third Rule: It can’t have been talked about so much or praised by so many critics that any reasonably aware record collector knows it backwards and forwards.

None of this…

Or this…

Fourth Rule: It can’t be mentioned in some well-known bible of taste like Greil Marcus’ “Desert Island” section at the end of Stranded or Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul. Which is really too bad…

Fifth Rule: Of course to be really, truly obscure, the fifth rule is, if not a must, at least the first sub-rule of tie-breakers:

No official release on CD.

It’s not that hard to find B-Sides never released on CD. Way harder than it used to be, but still not beyond the pale.

What’s a little harder is to find something I really love that’s never been released on CD.

I thought I might have to settle for something that at least hasn’t been released often. Something like this…

or this…

…both of which lead straight into the second sub-rule of tiebreakers...

A record gets a leg up if I actually first experienced it as a B-Side, something that put a smile on my face once upon a time when I got home from the record store and played through the stack and realized I had gotten two for one.

What for instance, might have lain on the other side of this….?

Not another big hit because the Poppy Family, despite making a number of distinctively elegiac records, didn’t have any other big hits outside their native Canada, (though “That’s Where I Went Wrong” made the top thirty…and Greil Marcus’s “Island”).

Also not a record that’s ever been released on CD.

And not a record that was even released on a vinyl album.

Now we’re getting pretty close to “truly obscure.” You can go deeper–the way your average troll defines it, obscurity really is a bottomless concept–but probably not with somebody who had at least as much success as the Poppy Family.

And, even if you did go deeper, I bet you wouldn’t find a classic cover, in this case of a 1958 hit by Jody Reynolds, that doesn’t so much rewrite a great original as restore its initial meaning.

In the fifties, Reynolds was forced to rewrite the lyrics to a song he had called “Endless Sleep” before his record company would release it.

They wanted him to rewrite it because they wanted a happy ending….to a record called “Endless Sleep.”

So they could release it on Demon Records.

I mean, any time they try to tell you the fifties weren’t weird….

Hey, he made it work anyway. But I was a little shocked when I finally heard Jody’s version. It didn’t jibe at first. How could it? I’d already absorbed this version…which does not end happily.

As far as I know, everything else the Poppy Family recorded was on one of their two albums. I assume this was a consummate throwaway, a true B-Side done up on the spot to get the wannabe, gonnabe hit–which turned out to be a monster–out the door.

Not the sort of thing that happens anymore, as we’re all too busy making those other plans the old B-Side King John Lennon used to talk about.

Thin gruel this brave new world has turned out to be.

But I remember how crazy and full life, love and the recording industry used to be.

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HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 10: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”)

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (U.S. Version-1965)
Artist: The Animals
Writers: (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil)

CIRCA 1966: Songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil pose for a portrait circa 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

(Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, circa, mid-sixties)

You’ve got to start somewhere.

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” seems to have started as an extra beat in Barry Mann’s ambitious heart.

Barry Mann the wannabe singer that is.

Barry had a big hit in the early sixties with “Who Put the Bomp” one of those great half-serious, half-goofy odes to rock and roll transcendence that occasionally lit up the charts back then. It wasn’t quite as great as Johnny Cymbal’s “Mr. Bass Man,” but it was still pretty darn great. That said, even “Mr. Bass Man” wasn’t quite the sort of record for a singer to build a career on. Too much competition in those halcyon days for “now what” to be the logical question about a follow up.

Besides, everybody knew who Barry Mann was. Barry Mann was a songwriter, and, especially after he met his soulmate, Cynthia Weil, a very great songwriter. (Of the three marriage/partner teams around whom the Brill Building was built, Mann and Weill were the ones who wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and the ones whose marriage lasted–they call it art for a reason)

But Mann didn’t exactly give up on his idea of being both a singer and a songwriter. After the advent of the Beatles and the rise of Bob Dylan, he probably started getting ideas. And who could blame him?

If they can do it, why not me?

So he planned and schemed and wrote and used his contacts and his talent to put pressure on the powers-that-be. It wasn’t too long before he secured a recording contract with Red Bird records and decided the demo he was shopping to the Righteous Brothers (as a followup to “Lovin’ Feeling”…there’s run for you) would make his own perfect debut.

Thus he recorded this:

Not bad. Kinda different, which wasn’t the curse in those days it is now. A little murky on the production end, maybe, and Barry Mann wasn’t a Righteous Brother, let alone, two Righteous Brothers. But lots of records of similar quality found their way up the charts even in that hyper-competitive era. It could have happened for Barry.

Certainly what happened next had to leave him wondering if it was his singing career’s great might-have-been.

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The Animals, whose producer, Mickie Most, had been slipped a demo by the era’s most ubiquitous hustler, Allen Klein (he’d later end up managing both the Beatles and the Stones), had recorded their own version for the UK market. It had been released there days before Mann’s record was set to be released in the U.S. Mann and Weil’s overseer and friend, Brill Building honcho Don Kirshner came to break the news.

The Animals’ version had come out that week and smashed high on the British charts.

Cynthia Weil had one question.

“How do we keep it from coming out over here?”

Answer:

“We can’t.”

The Animals eventually hit #2 in the UK, with this, the “correct” official version.

Better. It was kept out of the UK top spot by the Beatles’ “Help,” which was the kind of record it took in those days to keep a record like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from climbing all the way up the mountain. In the UK, at least.

If this were the only version that existed, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” might still have become all the things it did become: a trans-Atlantic smash; a permanent oldies’ staple in both countries; something close to the official anthem of Viet Nam grunts stuck in the jungle mud, forever being asked to take some plot of ground which the brass already fully intended to give back at all costs.

Something funny happened, though, along the way.

Somehow or other, a version that was never meant to see the light of day ended up being shipped to the States and becoming the American hit.

Remarkably, what became to be known as the “U.S. version” was the stronger record (and I’m sure I’m not just saying that because I heard it first and most). The rhythm was tighter. Eric Burdon’s fine original vocal was replaced by one of his fiercest yowls. The slightly langorous space around the beat was squeezed out. The distance between lament and fury was squeezed out along with it.

More than all that, two key lyric changes were made (they’d already improved slightly on Mann’s original). One of the changes was real: “Watch my daddy in bed a dyin'” became “See my daddy in bed a dyin'” which was, as Mark Twain might have had it, the lightning bug turned into lightning, not to mention a lot more singable.

But I have to confess it was the other lyric change, the “imaginary” one, that always grabbed me.

At the top of Mann’s version, the “real” lyric was clearly “In this dirty old part of the city,” and, in the subsequent UK and “live” versions, Eric Burdon clearly sang those words.

But what I heard for years, in the “U.S.” version–and what I hear now, is the far more forceful and poetic “In the still eye of the city.”

Or, if you like:

“in the still-l-l-l EYE of the city…”

Now, I know those aren’t the real words. No lyric sheet anywhere on the internet suggests such a change. No live version Burdon has sung, from the mid-sixties to yesterday, that I can find on YouTube, suggests he ever so much as thought of singing any words except “In this dirty old part of the city.”

Even the recorded UK version doesn’t quite suggest it, though if you listen close you could almost get confused.

But the U.S. version–the one most Americans heard for two decades, before the CD releases began and Klein, still owning the master, began insisting on the “proper” version being the only version–exchanges all that clarity for another sort of clarity.

Namely, that, whatever technological trick (or malfunction) was applied to the accidental release–whatever splicing or compression gave my ear “still eye” where “dirty old part” should have been, doubled the record’s power and turned “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from a really good record into something that actually deserved everything it became.

These days, you can find the “U.S.” version on a comp or two (2004’s Retrospective has it for sure). You can also hear it on YouTube…

..and, of course, you are free to hear it any way you want. Just don’t think you’re gonna change what I hear.

That’s hardly where the story ends. In whatever version,  “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” went as many places, affected as many lives, as any record ever has.

The most interesting story I ever heard was some years back on Public Radio. Mann and Weil were being interviewed by Terry Gross, and, inevitably, the subject of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” came up. Gross was well aware of the song’s history and pressed them for details on their feelings about having what was supposed to have been Mann’s big shot at a solo career effectively pulled from under him by a twist of fate.

About that, Mann waxed philosophical. Regrets, sure, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t had a great life.

Then Gross asked if he preferred his own version to the Animals. Mann danced around the question for maybe two minutes before conceding that, yes, maybe the Animals’ version was better. It became the hit, after all.

Eventually, he quit talking.

Without being asked, Cynthia Weil immediately added:

“I prefer the version by Barry Mann.”

After which I no longer needed to wonder why theirs was the marriage–and the partnership–that lasted.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Commodores Up)

“This Is Your Life”
The Commodores (1975)
Billboard R&B: #13
Did not make the Pop Chart
Recommended source: Commodores Gold

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“This Is Your Life” was the Commodores fifth single. After some fair-to-middling success as a (first rate) hard funk band, it was meant to launch them as a ballad act, featuring their rather odd-looking and odd-sounding crooner in residence, Lionel Richie.

It didn’t. Their previous release “Slippery When Wet” had been their most successful to date, topping the R&B chart and reaching #19 Pop, outdoing even their debut killer “Machine Gun.” Maybe the shift was too sudden, but “This Is Your Life” was a severe comedown on the charts.

Their label, Motown, had once held a reputation for sticking with acts it believed in and having it pay off with legendary careers once the sweet spot was identified. But with the Commodores, it might have seemed that the sweet spot was already identified–a place next to Kool & the Gang and Ohio Players as purveyors of reliable funk to a devoted audience who could provide the basis for occasional pop crossover and a place to come home to once the crossover moment passed. And, anyway, what Motown had once done routinely, it was not so committed to doing at all by the mid-seventies.

And so there it might have stayed.

Except Lionel Richie had other ideas. In later years, he put it pretty simply: “I wanted us to be the black Beatles.” That meant doing all kinds of music and selling all of it to a multiracial audience.

“This Is Your Life” was his first reach for the stars and he more or less came up empty…at least on the charts.

He–or somebody–kept on believing. The followup single, “Sweet Love,” was the first from their next album. It went #5 Pop, #2 R&B, and sent The Commodores/Lionel Richie on a decade long run of crossover success that made them, if not the black Beatles, at very least superstars in their own right and, more significantly, last stand upholders of an aspirational cultural and political black bourgeoisie tradition that has since been lost at no small cost to us all. If it hangs around, waiting to be redeemed, it hangs around at least in part due to them and their ability to extend it a decade past its natural sell-by date.

That their contribution wasn’t lost in the cradle was due to persistence and belief.

Because “This Is Your Life” has every element that made Commodores’ balladry great (especially the killer arrangement). There was no good reason for it to fail and no good reason to keep believing future attempts at the same would succeed.

It wasn’t like even the greatest of them–not “Sweet Love,” not “Easy,” no, not even “Sail On,”–would be better. But believe they did….

(Note: This is the longer album version. Just because it’s better. Maybe the record company should have believed in it enough to avoid a radio edit!….Talk about an alternative universe.)

 

 

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Bangles Up)

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

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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.

 

THAT MRS. JONES, SHE WAS A LUCKY LADY (Billy Paul, R.I.P.)

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Kenny Gamble spotted Billy Paul in a jazz club in the late sixties. By then, Paul had been knocking around the music business since the early fifties, had served in Elvis’s unit in Germany (where he tried, unsuccessfully, to get Elvis to join his band), boxed a little, had the standard sixties’ experience of being knocked out by the Beatles in general and John Lennon in particular.

Gamble heard something special and immediately signed Billy to the new label he was starting with Leon Huff. Paul’s mostly self-produced first album was the second release on Gamble Records, which, not too long after, morphed into Philly International, the most important black music label of the 1970s (if not the most important label period).

Paul was a perfect fit for the new label’s defining sensibility, which emphasized an aspirational style of Black American bourgeoisie that delivered on every musical promise and, for a fleeting instant, made real social and political assimilation seem nearer than it had ever been before or has ever been since. No record embodied that sensibility, or the promises it implied, than Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones.” He made plenty of more militant sides, the most famous of which was the sticky wicket “Am I Black Enough For You?” But, like most really effective political records “Me and Mrs. Jones” worked subterraneously. It carried its message in its bones, the fluid marrow of which was Paul’s inimitable voice.

The message was simple enough: Sex and longing and sneaking around and meeting in corner cafes without much idea of where it might lead beyond the pleasure of the moment was neither a black or white thing, simply a human thing. If, these days, you think that’s no big deal, then that just means the record’s once revolutionary notions have been sufficiently absorbed to make them seem as natural as breathing. Paul ended up making a slew of fine records. Cruise around YouTube and I doubt you’ll be able to find a weak track. I know I couldn’t. And, working with the finest producers and session men in the world, the best thing about any Billy Paul record was always Billy Paul.

But his one big pop hit couldn’t really be followed, any more than it could be forgotten.

Paul passed away from cancer this week, at 81. Like his contemporary Donnie Hathaway, he remains seriously under-appreciated outside of Black America.

Bet they know better where he’s gone to now.

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