I caught an interview with Eric Burdon on YouTube not long ago where he told the story of how his band the Animals came to record their version of a folk standard called “The House of the Rising Sun.” Seems they had signed a recording contract and were on tour in England as one of several opening acts for Chuck Berry.
All the other acts were basically copying Chuck, covering his songs, playing and performing as close to his style as possible. In order to be different, the Animals decided to change things up with “The House of the Rising Sun,’ already a folk and blues standard but nothing anyone had ever imagined as a pop hit.
On an early date in the tour, they found themselves in what passed for the venue’s dressing room, which was close enough to the exit they could overhear fans leaving the arena. This particular night, they heard nearly everyone who passed by talking about how great Chuck Berry was…and what about that one strange song that one group did.
Nobody seemed to know that it was. Everybody seemed to agree it was fantastic.
The next day was the group’s one day a week off. They looked at each other and decided: We better get down to London right away and record this. In those days a week could be a lifetime, the difference between a hit and oblivion (a process Barry Mann would learn a couple of years later when his original version of “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” was pulled from the American marketplace because the Animals had just released it that week in the UK…and it was already #1) could be a matter of days or even hours.
They made it to London and back. While they were there, they unpacked their equipment long enough to record “The House of the Rising Sun,” by Burdon’s account in one take.
The rest is history. “Rising Sun’ is, to this day, the unsurpassed foundation stone of British Blues Rock, the first non-Beatles” British #1 in America after the dawn of the British Invasion and oh so much more.
And for all its unfathomably great elements–Burdon’s yowling vocal (still the toughest, most uncompromising, to ever top either the UK or US charts), Alan Price’s soaring-and-dipping keyboards, Chas Chandler’s throat-grabbing bass, Mickie Most’s gutbucket, caught-on-the-fly production–the greatest and most distinctive element for me was Hilton Valentine’s guitar intro which then boils and burns throughout the whole song, finally gluing it all together from first note to last.
Hilton passed away today at the age of 77. His greatest musical moment came 57 years ago.
Since this is, among other things, an homage to the dancers who lit up the Hollywood Rock and Roll shows in the sixties (especially Hollywood A Go-Go), I’ll let this lovely photo of Roberta Tennes stand in for all of them. She passed away in 2015. Time is merciless. R.I.P.
I don’t know how many mix tapes/discs I’ve made in my life. Probably less than a hundred. Definitely more than fifty.
A modest number then. The point of a mix for me is to approximate the surprise juxtapositions you run into on radio or, these days, YouTube.
Of course, if you listen to a disc too often, the surprise element goes away. The sequence can become as ingrained and automatic as your favorite Beatles album…until you let it sit on the shelf long enough to forget.
And when you come back (in this case, after maybe seven or eight years, to a disc I originally put together as a tape in a series I called Cavern Classics, all based around music I could picture the Hollywood A Go-Go dancers dancing to at the Sock Hope at the end of the Universe), sometimes it makes you smile….
Here’s Volume 20 of the Cavern Classics…with stray thoughts attached:
“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”Elton John & Kiki Dee (1976): A sneaky good side-starter. Don’t go breaking my heart the guy says. I couldn’t if I tried, the girl answers. Wait….what? Next thing you know, feet start tapping. Somebody had been listening to a lot of Philly Soul.
“Jingling Baby”LL Cool J (1990): I still haven’t figured out quite what’s jingling. But I’ll always listen for the poetry of Taking out suckers while the ladies pucker/And rolling over punks like a redneck trucker. Oh, wait. He says its earrings that are jingling. Yeah, that’s probably it.
“Hawaii Five-O” The Ventures (1969): Of course it all has to make sonic sense. “Jingling Baby” to this: One of my top five transitions all time. Dance, girls, dance!
“The Boys are Back in Town”Thin Lizzy (1976): And here’s a song about somebody escaping the club and going downtown and driving all the old men crazy. I’m betting the late, great Phil Lynott–the second greatest Irish rock and roller after Van Morrison–had seen Hollywood A Go-Go some time or other.
“Ffun”Con-Funk-Shun (1977): Mystic chords of memory. They played Disney World the night of my senior Class Trip. I was elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom when they took the stage. Elvis wasn’t the only one who knew how to be lonely in the middle of a crowd. I don’t want to talk about it.
“It’s So Easy”Linda Ronstadt (1977): Dave Marsh once said he would prefer having records to masturbate to on his Desert Island to enduring Linda Ronstadt’s company in person. Back when this was on the radio, we used to have a word for guys like Dave: Afflicted. I think we should bring this word back.
“Mickey’s Monkey” The Miracles (1963): Okay, this is literally about spreading a new dance all around. The Cavern is not unaffected. From now on, girls, no matter what plays, everybody will be doing Mickey’s Monkey. (Warning: the video link is to the actual Cavern….this is where I learned that Rock and Roll America’s basic dances could be performed to almost anything with a beat.)
“Pay Bo Diddley”Mike Henderson & the Bluebloods (1996): No, you don’t get permission to stop! Not even for “Pay Bo Diddley.” Keep doing Mickey’s Monkey. Okay….maybe you can do a little hand jive, too. Yeah, and maybe a little of that other thing. Just keep those feet moving. What? No, you absolutely cannot do that! Not until Mike gets Bo paid. Speaking of poetry–is rhyming IRS and Leonard Chess Rock and Roll America’s funniest line? Now, I’m not gonna help you with the answer….
“Radar Love”Golden Earring (1973): The intro always damn near brings a mix to a halt. I’ve stuck it in a few, though. Because soon enough the shuffle starts (dance, girls dance!) And somewhere in there the singer’s gonna insist the radio is playing some forgotten song/Brenda Lee…coming on strong. It’s the absence of “is” that makes it.
Program Break(Note: Because I started with tapes, my mixes always ran about forty-five minutes. Feel free to go to the bathroom!)
“Summer of ’69”Bryan Adams (1985): Bryan Adams has tried to explain this song more than once. Shut up and sing Bryan. Play your guitar maybe. Lead your band. Count your money. Any damn thing. There are a few people who can get away with explaining perfection. You’re not one of them.
“Be-Bop-A-Lula”Gene Vincent (1956): Take Gene for instance. Gene’s not trying to explain. And he’s talking about a girl in her red blue jeans who’s the Queen of the Teens! Get it?
“Sweet Jane,”“Rock and Roll,”“Cool it Down”TheVelvet Underground (1970): This is the Velvet Underground Suite or, if you like The Loaded Suite. Now I’m not saying these things are meant to define any band as great as the Animals or the Velvets. But by the time they hit the chorus of “Cool it Down” here, and all the girls are dancing like spinning tops in the Cavern, you might be forgiven for thinking so. Singing along is permitted by the way. Did I forget to mention that?
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”The Rolling Stones (1968): When it was recently revealed that the FBI called its operation to “help” Donald Trump “Crossfire Hurricane,” there were many hilarious attempts to explain that “this is a reference to the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ which was also the name of a Whoopi Goldberg movie.” And you wonder why Trump is rolling over these punks like a redneck trucker?
“Tear Stained Letter”Patty Loveless (1996): Sprightly. (This is supposed to let the people dance, remember? Look, they’re back to doing Mickey’s Monkey!) Putting this together in the late nineties might have been the first time I realized Loveless and the Stones had some sort of weird connection. It wasn’t the last. Now let me list all the other country singers I ever thought of sticking between the Rolling Stones and War on a mix disc….
“Cinco De Mayo”War (1981): Did I mention War was coming up. Dance, girls, dance!
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (12″ version)Santa Esmeralda (1977); The twelve-inch version of Santa Esmeralda’s cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” runs ten-and-a-half minutes. I don’t know how many minutes of that Quentin Tarantino (coming along years after I got all those girls dancing in the Cavern, mind you) used in Kill Bill. It felt like seventy-five or eighty. All I know is, until I saw Kill Bill, I believed Leroy Gomez and company could make a sprayed roach lying flat on its back get up and dance. I still believe that. I just know even they couldn’t make me think I was watching anything but a sprayed roach lying flat on it’s back while Kill Bill was playing.
“Gloria” Santa Esmeralda (1977): “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” can never be part of a suite. It is its own thing (heck it’s even called that officially–“The Esmeralda Suite”). But nothing else can follow it to close out a mix. I like when the Latin guy makes the Irish guy’s “i-yi-yi-yi” sound like “ay-ay-ay-ay.” There might be a revolution starting in there somewhere. Have to think it over.
Okay girls, you can stop doing Mickey’s Monkey now.
Girls….I say there….Girls?
Wait, what do you call that now?
Don’t you make me….
GIT YER CLOTHES BACK ON!
The mind is a funny thing. I’m sure glad I didn’t waste mine.
I think I’m gonna dedicate a song to Roberta’s memory…
“All Day Music” 1971 Artist: War Writers: Jerry Goldstein, War
“Hey, this is the War symbol…Three fingers and a smile. War!”
(Last words heard on War’s breakout album All Day Music, which closes on an early, raw, live version of “Me and Baby Brother”)
Claiming the Space…
Bourgeois dreams were coming to fruition in Black America in the early 70s. The cold-blooded economic planning that would keep the ghetto the ghetto wherever it was found (mostly in black-demo big cities, the dual-demo rural south, white demo Appalachia and the about-to-be Rust Belt) was already clicking into place, but there were still cracks in the new facade where the light could be glimpsed shining through from the Promised Land.
War, the greatest American band of the decade (and, with the original Byrds, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, the most Cosmic of the American Century–“greatest” is another argument), lived and breathed in those cracks…and stomped all over that facade.
Their ability to stomp has, not surprisingly in a Narrative defined almost entirely by college-bound white boys who can’t dance, overshadowed their gift for living and breathing, of which “All Day Music” was the first, foundational, example.
It was their first crossover hit (if you don’t count their Burn-Down-the-Cornfield backing of Eric Burdon on “Spill the Wine”). It wasn’t huge, but it made Top 40, and kicked off a string of harder-edged singles that were, perhaps paradoxically, much bigger. “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” “The World is a Ghetto,” “Cisco Kid,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “Me and Baby Brother,” “Low Rider” Really, the titles are all you need.
Contrasted to all that–and I think the contrast wasn’t just deliberate, but a setup–“All Day Music” represents what sounds at first like a comforting, almost bucolic vision, albeit with a hint of carrying on a tradition of Black America finding peace in unlikely places that made it a natural sequel to the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk.”
But where “Under the Boardwalk” (recorded under extraordinary circumstances when lead singer Rudy Lewis was killed in a car accident the day before the planned session and Johnny Moore had to step into his place to provide that durable R&B group/brand with its last Top Ten pop hit), was written as a white fantasy for a black group to sing, “All Day Music” was written by black men to sing for themselves.
Great as “Under the Boardwalk” is–I wouldn’t argue if you said it was a greater record than “All Day Music”–that’s not a distinction without a difference.
Neither was the space War intended to claim: Not a temporary space under the boardwalk at Coney Island, as accessible to Black America as any other integrated space, but the broad scope of urban and suburban life in early 70s’ Los Angeles.
Down at the beach, or a party in town meant something different in L.A., with its long and notorious history of virulent racist policing–a theme War would return to over and again–than it did back east (where racist policing was hardly unknown), or even in the Deep South (where, except for a few spots in Florida, beaches tend to be either resort spots or hideaways, not part of the everyday social fabric that comes with the term Southern California).
And once you know that, Making love or just riding around or Let’s have a picnic, go to the park/Rolling in the grass til long after dark, take on a whole new dimension–a dimension Black America had never really felt free to grant itself before and can hardly take for granted even now.
Taken that way–as career starter, tone setter, vision definer–“All Day Music” may have been even bolder than War’s more obviously bold records, which were only the boldest of their era.
Strange, then, that “All Day Music” and “Summer” (from 1976), the records which bracketed the band’s hit-making run on the Pop Charts, its true bond with White America–a run that cemented their now-forgotten status as the band who were both asking the questions that needed answering and providing a glimpse of what lay on the other side of implementing the human-size solutions which then seemed so near to hand–defined the promise of the coming day that seemed so far away in “Slippin’ Into Darkness” or “The World is a Ghetto” or “Me and Baby Brother.”
That the day never quite came, that progress stalled and then, as progress will, splintered, deepens the melancholy tone these records–and, as a career starter, a statement of purpose, “All Day Music” in particular–only hinted at when they were on the radio.
The peace “All Day Music” meant to promote without taking anything for granted, shattered in the crack-filled, CIA-run, eighties that War had promised lay on the other side of failing to reach an understanding, and which, almost inevitably, produced first NWA, then Ice Cube, then Ice Cube’s natural sequel to “All Day Music”…
…by which time, the dream of permanence War had been close enough to reach out and touch had been reduced to Thinkin’ will I live another twenty-four and Today I didn’t even have to use my AK, bleeding in and out of an air of paranoia that couldn’t be escaped for even a moment. Running in fear all day, and being thankful the worst fear hadn’t been realized for a whole day, had replaced listening to music all day.
And replaces it still.
Better then. Better even with all hell breaking loose…
The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)
I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).
But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.
First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.
Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?
Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?
I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.
But, my God, what a missed opportunity.
Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”
One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.
That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.” That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)
Well, none of that happened.
Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)
Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.”Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).
And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”
Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.
One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.
Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.
Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.
Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.
Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.
Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.
And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.
“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (U.S. Version-1965) Artist: The Animals Writers: (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil)
(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.
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?”
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.
Before he decided to become a full-time minster in the summer of 1974, my father was a paint contractor. Around 1972, give or take a year, he was hired to paint the interior of one of the Florida Space Coast-area branch offices of a prominent bank that operated within a stone’s throw of the Kennedy Space Center. When it came time to paint the top floor, which was taken up by the bank president’s office, it was decided that the president’s daily business was too important to be interrupted so my dad would just have to paint around him as he worked.
I’m not sure how all the logistics were managed, but the upshot was that, for a week or so, in the early seventies, my dad found himself in daily conversation with a guy whose brother was a mucky-muck at the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve.
Dad had the gift of gab in excelsis and it pretty much always elicited one of two responses in strangers: Either they got out of earshot as quickly as possible or they opened up and told him all the secrets they’d been careful to keep from their own mothers.
Maybe because he didn’t really have a choice, once he decided to stay at his desk, the bank president turned out to be the latter.
By the time my dad finished painting the guy’s office they were on sufficiently intimate terms for the gentleman to offer some very timely, in-the-know advice.
First: Build a bomb shelter in the back yard.
Second: In addition to plenty of canned food and ammo, be sure to stock up on the following three items:
Cigarettes. Bonded whiskey. Gold bullion.
In the coming when-not-if age of Economic Chaos, which would surely be upon us before the decade was out, those would be the only three items that had any real value as barter.
Normally, I doubt even my dad, who wasn’t immune to apocalyptic thinking, would have given it much thought. But, before my mother sounded the final voice of reason, he ended up kicking it around for a week or two. At least the bomb-shelter part.
I’m not sure I could blame him.
It’s one thing to have the guy ranting about End Times on the street corner hand you a pamphlet written in invisible ink. It’s another thing altogether to get the inside dope from a guy who’s chewing the fat with his brother at the Fed every day while you’re dipping a roller in the Antique White.
I relate this little story because, unless you were there, the early seventies can seem very long ago and very far away. And, even if you were there, especially if you were as young as I was, they’re really not much closer
The air is like that. It changes. And once it does, you can recall concrete events, hazy conspiracy talk and the smell of paint thinner a lot more readily than the atmosphere in which such memories were formed.
About the only way a story like the one about my dad and the ban president seems anything other than quaint now, when the end (bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!) really is near, is to listen to bands like War and Steely Dan.
Once upon a time, in the age of the Rising, they had the air in common.
* * * *
They had a lot in common besides that.
They rose to prominence in the same place (Los Angeles) at roughly the same time (early to mid-seventies), practiced definitive variants of a rather fluid concept bandied about as “jazz rock” in those days, and, despite neither band being long on marketing, as opposed to musical, personality, each enjoyed remarkably high and similar levels of commercial success:
War: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1970–79; 12 Top 40 singles, 6 Top 10 singles.
Steely Dan: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1972–1980; 10 Top 40 singles, 3 Top 10 singles (with two more reaching #11)
That’s a lot of common ground. Especially considering they weren’t really soul mates.
I’ll lay into that in a bit.
But first, I’ll note one really big difference, which is how the usual suspects in the smart set generally felt about them:
Rolling Stone, listing the 500 greatest albums of all time, named three Steely Dan albums, at #145 (Aja), #240 (Can’t Buy a Thrill) and #336 (Pretzel Logic), to one War album, at #444 (The World is a Ghetto).
Robert Christgau gave four of Steely Dan’s studio albums contemporary grades of A- or better. He gave no grades of A- or better to any of War’s studio albums (he did give an A- to their 1976 best of).
Greil Marcus, in his invaluable “Treasure Island” list at the end of Stranded, included three Steely Dan albums. War was represented by one single (“Slippin’ Into Darkness”).
Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, was less enthusiastic about Steely Dan, giving three of their first six studio LPs a rating of 4 stars (on a 5 star system). But, though he called them “perhaps the most underrated black band of the Seventies,” he only gave two of War’s first seven studio LPs a grade of 4 stars (none higher), thus, oddly enough, helping insure that they would continue to be what he was purportedly lamenting.
Later, in The Heart of Rock ‘N’ Soul, a personal list of “the greatest 1,001 singles,” Marsh included three singles by each band. To be fair, War’s averaged out considerably higher in his rankings, but, basically, he called it a near-draw in an area where War was demonstrably stronger.
Once you get past these particular iconic writers/institutions, the crit-balance tips even more in Steely Dan’s favor, because few, if any, of the other white boys who have always dominated the basic narrative ever wrote about War at all, while many paid some kind of obeisance to Steely Dan (including their own chapter, by Ken Tucker, in Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book in which War is mentioned exactly once–as Eric Burdon’s backup band on “Spill the Wine.”).
And, of course, circles of self-reinforcing logic being made to be unbroken, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, in their fourth year of eligibility. War, eligible since 1996 and nominated three times, has yet to be voted in.
So it goes.
None of this has much to do with how great (or not) either band was/is. I’m not really big on the whole This-Versus-That dynamic. Sure it’s fun to play (Stax or Motown? Beatles or Stones? Prince or Michael? Tweedle-Dee or Tweedle-Dum?) but, really, I never thought those kind of choices said much about anybody, though the desire to make such choices might, and the desire to impose those choices on others definitely does.
So this isn’t a “War or Steely Dan?” argument.
It’s more like a thought experiment on why the critical assessment between two such evenly matched bands has so consistently favored one over the other.
Well, here’s a thought for the experiment.
How about, one group is Black and the other one is White?
Obvious though it is, it could still have consequences. So let’s let it dangle for a bit.
* * * *
Despite their similarities, as the covers of their respective breakthrough albums rather eloquently suggest, these bands were on rather different journeys:
I mean, you wouldn’t need the names on those covers to guess who was street and who was collegiate.
Which doesn’t mean they didn’t like each other personally or, as folks used to say, “dig” each other musically.
I have no idea if the respective members even knew each other and, while I can guess that they heard each other’s records (pretty hard not to), I have only a vague notion of how much, if any, impression those records made one upon the other.
Were they pushing each other, back there in that shared time and space? Inspiring each other? Making sure they at least kept an ear out for what the other was up to?
All of the above?
None of the above?
Hard to tell, beyond hints and allegations (which I’ll also get to in a bit).
A certain part of the truth is accessible, though.
In spirit and fact, War’s music rose from the neighborhoods Steely Dan, in spirit if not fact, cruised after dark in search of whatever might lend an edge to a pretty jaded existence: cool drugs, hot hookers, Jazz Heroes….inspiration. Black America’s traditional relationship to White America in other words.
This might have been no big deal. We are what we are. Nobody can blame the Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for going to college. But this distinction happened to represent one of the gulfs White America and Black America needed to bridge if we were going to have any sort of future as anything other than the cobbled together, quasi-functional, political-economy-with-borders which was already dancing in the dreams of our conspiracy-of-intent overlords. Something was going to come out of the rubble of the late sixties. Whether it would be a step up or a step back was being fought out on the airwaves as much as anywhere else.
The gap would be bridged or the bridge would be destroyed. Mountains were bound to fall.
Whether they would fall on us was still a question, though, and just because we now know the answer, and know the mountain was made out of manure, doesn’t mean the why of it isn’t still worth exploring.
Unless, of course, we just want to give up.
* * * *
And the first factor in “bridging the gap”–in not giving up–would be what?
Maybe recognition of something elemental?
Like maybe a black band from the actual ghetto could offer a vision as stimulating and challenging as a couple of white guys (Steely Dan was basically Fagen, whose idea of “street” was the classically bohemian one of detesting his parents for moving to the suburbs, Becker, and whoever they felt like hiring at a given moment) who went to college (and, some might argue) never really left, even if Becker did drop out and Fagen, protesting a bust, did refuse to attend graduation?
That’s actually been a hard line to cross with even the most enlightened of the crit-illuminati. I’m not down with Wynton Marsalis much, but he was right to bristle at white critics who called Louis Armstrong (that is, even Louis Armstrong) an “instinctive” genius.
What did that mean? Marsalis wondered. That he didn’t know what he was doing?
Well, yeah. That’s exactly what it meant.
Some of this attitude has hung over the discussion of nearly every black musical genius–or great band–from the dawn of the popular-music-criticism-verging-on-intellectualism that jazz itself finally forced into existence in the twenties and thirties, to the last time I looked at my watch.
Yes, an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Miles Davis eventually gets the last level of respect, even if it’s bound to retain a slightly patronizing air which is frequently reduced to over praising. And, yes, a James Brown or a Jimi Hendrix gets it, too, though it’s usually couched as some form of Resistance-to-the-Man, which, sotto voce, is accepted as being as compulsory (for black people) and as much a product of the subconscious, as, well, instinct.
That is, a band like War could only write/sing/play with such conviction about the world they knew–a world writerly sorts were free to ignore or acknowledge as they saw fit–because it was the world they knew. They were geniuses of observation.
Well, maybe not geniuses, but, you know, really funky and kinda smart about stuff.
The way black people just naturally are.
On the other hand, a band like Steely Dan–i.e., a couple of cool cats like Becker and Fagen who, admittedly could not have been cool in any context except that of the Rock and Roll America they were determined to mock–could imagine things.
They were thinkers by God!
And that narrative became all but officially signed, sealed and delivered, no matter how often Becker and Fagen’s lyrics were clearly rooted in personal experience…
Or how often War’s lyrics were clearly flights of imagination…
And that was before any discussion of the music behind the lyrics, which, in Steely Dan’s case, tended to make the critics who took them to heart from the moment they showed up in the early seventies wax lyrical and, in War’s case, tended to make them wax either not at all or along the lines of Christgau’s jeering “blackstrap-rock.”
Ha, ha, ha.
That’s one side.
And, on the other side, you get, for instance, Tucker in his History of Rock and Roll piece:
“Becker and Fagen had already evolved a procedure that guaranteed a certain amount of tension and surprise, and at its best generated a flow of little pop epiphanies: genre riffs are set off by contrapuntal rhythms…then these clever contrasts are polished and hammered down by rock-intense playing.”
Okay, maybe Lonnie Jordan and Bebe Dickerson and the rest of the men of War were lucky, being spared that sort of praise. But note the active verbs: evolved, generated, polished, hammered down.
So far as I’ve been able to tell, War has never been discussed in similar terms and, even if it happened, it’s unlikely they’d find themselves credited with a phrase like “evolved a procedure.”
That’s reserved for the college kids…by other college kids.
* * * *
Now, none of this would matter if Steely Dan had, at some point, really been a better band. We should all know the dangers of quota-based tokenism by now. But Steely Dan at high tide wasn’t greater than War at high tide.
Simple evidence there…They weren’t greater because nobody was.
Sure, some bands sustained greatness longer. But when War was locked in–roughly from 1971’s All Day Music through the 1976 single, “Summer,” which turned out to be their last big hit, they were a cosmic American band on a level with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or the original Byrds.
They just couldn’t get the white boy press to hear it that way.
Absent a “personality” White America’s newly self-appointed intelligentsia could latch onto–a Sly Stone or George Clinton who could serve as an identifiable “Wow man! He’s so-o-o-o great!!” cool kid, whether they liked it or not–they were simply never going to get the level of respect that a similarly anonymous (and, yes, similarly great) white band like Steely Dan could take as a matter of course.
It wasn’t the public, by the way, who failed to “get” it. Along with everything else, War easily crossed race and class barriers on the radio that Steely Dan never got within shouting distance of. (You can go here and scroll down to the War entry for a sense of just how far they reached.)
And they did not do so “instinctively.”
They did not do so by dint of failing to pass the great test of Art. They did not fail to imagine music that made the world larger instead of smaller.
Quite the opposite.
* * * *
Which brings us to the real divide. And the real cost.
Great bands. Same time and place. Some overlap to be sure.
Steely Dan’s famous first single, for instance, sure sounded like somebody in their camp was deeply into the mix of specifically L.A.-style garage funk which War, working their way up from the streets so many out-of-towners wanted to own, already embodied.
And, even if the white boy brigade had trouble hearing it, War’s occasionally mordant wit certainly wasn’t without a tinge of the irony Steely Dan specialized in.
So, in addition to all the stuff I mentioned at the top, they had enough else in common that it’s not too hard to imagine them covering each other’s songs.
Because, all their very real differences aside, sharing a time and space mattered, too, and more because of the time than the space.
In that time–and every space–the spirit of good old rock and roll, lingering in the aftermath of ’68, the year it probably wasn’t yet quite so evident we could never walk away from in the way we had managed to walk away from 1812, 1861, 1929, 1941 was still potent. Which meant that, for as long as Rock and Roll America lasted, Black America and White America were bound to keep invading each other’s space, looking for a way forward.
In that all-important respect, Steely Dan were no pikers.
But War went further.
Steely Dan was finally minimalist, introverted, elliptical. It was hard to imagine them ever being so corny as to name their albums after hit singles.
There’s a fine line, though, between cutting to the heart of the matter and cutting the heart out of the matter. On the first two cuts of their first album–“Do it Again,” and “Dirty Work”–this sounds very much like a line Steely Dan could have walked. Even the rest of the first album’s tendency towards obscurantism-for-its-own-sake didn’t entirely negate the possibility.
By the end of that first LP, though, they weren’t so much walking the wire as clinging to it from below, with one hand slipping.
They more or less held on for the next three albums, more than enough to make them justifiably rich, famous and celebrated. And holding on was an achievement, plenty enough to keep the music alive through the increasingly woozy lite-jazz descendency of their late period and, for the attentive, all the years since.
But one is justified in asking: Where’d the vision go?
Nowhere, really, because, after those first two luminous cuts, it never quite developed into a vision.
Visions, it turned out, were corny, too. Just like naming your albums after hit singles.
So, eventually, the cool kids who had spent their lives cutting themselves off from anything that could be misinterpreted as a little too heart-on-the-sleeve, ended up being the mushiest thing on the radio in a time (the late 70s) when the radio was turning to mush.
To be fair, War faded as well.
Embracing a vision costs, too. Just like avoiding one.
Instead of turning to mush, they simply lost their edge. The sharp blade became a dull blade. Better than late Steely Dan, but hardly what they had been…or what Steely Dan had been.
It’s certainly possible to argue that Steely Dan had it right. If the mountains were going to fall anyway, why not make sure the mountains fell on somebody else? Why not remain on the ridge, in safety? “If you live in this world you’re seeing the change of the guard” for sure. But this ain’t Fort Apache. It’s not as though honor were at stake. I mean, what’s cornier than that? Especially if, by remaining in safety, you might even get yourself proclaimed a visionary.
Plenty have weighed in on the value of Steely Dan’s vision. Ken Tucker’s take is standard, even exemplary, in that respect. And the “vision” is not illegitimate.
But War, greater or lesser by more objective standards, went further in this respect.
Their vision–long unacknowledged by critics who think what really matters is voting reliably Democratic and retweeting #BlackLivesMatter (or whatever hipster movement, prepared to make no difference either, takes its place next summer) to all their friends–was bracketed by their first and last important singles:
Pure L.A from beginning to end….and contextually shocking.
The surfers had sent out a vision of L.A. and it was shooting the curl at Malibu.
The folk rockers had sent out a vision from Laurel Canyon and it was peace, love and long hair, plus harmonies, guitars and groupies.
The Doors had sent out a vision from the Whisky and it was “Father I want to kill you, Mother I want to….a-a-a-a-a-a-g-g-g-g-g-h-h-h-h-h-h!”
War checked in a generation before the rappers and said, quietly and then not so quietly: Hey, it’s our town, too.
And what they really meant, a message that resonated from Compton to Cape Town, from Mexico City to Montgomery, was it’s our world, too...And if you want to do something about it you could start by giving us a little basic respect.
In that sense “down at the beach or a party in town, making love or just riding around,” the most intense action juxtaposed with the most laid back, an insistence that Los Angeles and the world belonged to black people from Compton as much as beach boys (or Beach Boys) from Hawthorne, was at least as revolutionary as “the world is a ghetto,” and also sent the message that revolutionary and “incendiary” were not the same thing.
They didn’t share Steely Dan’s underlying, deeply cynical assumption, one that moved much of SD’s audience even if they never quite bought it themselves: If the world can’t be saved, it’s really a bummer, but let’s all be thankful it can at least it can be endured, one joint at a time
* * * *
War had a white harmonica player but they otherwise consisted of American-born black men who recognized Rock and Roll America’s fundamental challenge: If we’re ever going to get anywhere, Black America and White America are going to have to challenge each other’s space and learn to get along.
Steely Dan, despite their jazz element, were white men committed to protecting the space off to the side which elite White America has always very carefully preserved for itself, a space that has always been most ably defended by folks who are the longest way possible from being “racist.”
The Dan weren’t for invading anybody’s space.
And one could say that their once false assumptions have become the norm. They’ve certainly become the collegiate norm, which is one reason the overlords are pushing “college” on everybody (bilking suckers being the other). Whether they’ve also become true is a question for the future, a future I suspect is looming nearer than we think as we become less and less capable of producing art that can either wound or heal, let alone do both at once.
Whatever future is coming, someone will be left to look back and judge us like all the other fallen empires who, funnily enough, we really had very little in common with.
It will be for them to study the moment when the balance was being tipped and decide who gave a nudge in the direction of the Void and who shouted a warning.
Chances are, if you took the easy way out, greatness won’t really absolve you then.
And if there is no judgment?
Well, there will sure be a lot of Steely Dan fans.
And War, still shouting in the wilderness, won’t make any sense at all.
This year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot was released recently. I’ll have a post on all the nominees and who I voted for in the fan ballots later. First I wanted to concentrate on the acts that are the year’s two most deserving by a wide margin (not that either is being treated that way in either the press or the fan polls–wrong color), who also played a big role in the category I recently started here.
I don’t know if War was the greatest American band of the seventies–I’d call it a close run between them and Lynyrd Skynyrd–and, depending on how one defines “the Seventies” (do Creedence or Sly and the Family Stone belong?) or “American” (does Fleetwood Mac belong?), there are other contenders. But they were certainly the most Cosmic–the same way the Byrds were the most Cosmic band of the Sixties.
Cosmic as in “boundless” or “limitless.”
Or just far-reaching.
Put another way, they were the perfect band for Cosmic times. Especially Cosmic times that were beginning to close down and leave us with the set of boundaries and limits within which we now live.
They’re just buzzwords now. A big, mixed up stew of psychic jolts barely detectable from each other.
Vietnam. Watergate. Woodstock. Altamont. Manson Family. Summer of Love. Love Generation. Weatherman. SDS. Kent State. Days of Rage.
Assassination. Riot. War (the socio-political concept, not the military one that involves the truly bloody and costly task of taking and holding ground and certainly not the Cosmic band).
It’s all in the past now. Part of the times.
Except “the times” still have a hand around our throat. Our ignoring it hasn’t made it go away–just led us here, to the place of lost opportunity.
The Rising was meant to warn us, to keep us off the wrong track.
War was The Rising’s strongest voice.
For a half-decade plus–from backing Eric Burdon on 1970’s “Spill the Wine” (a far more subversive record than just about anybody has ever cared to admit–probably because it arrived at the only moment when a white man fantasizing about an orgy in the Hall of the Mountain Kings while the African Kings [albeit with a Danish harmonica player] of L.A.’s Chicano East Side laid down the funk and Miss Puerto Rico whispered sweet nothings in his ear, going #3 Billboard, seemed not all that far-fetched) on through “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World is a Ghetto” and “Cisco Kid” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”
Along the way, they had the best-selling album of 1973–a phenomenon (now mostly forgotten, along with the rest of The Rising) I wrote about here, plus a string of Go-rilla-sized radio hits that crossed every conceivable barrier (which I wrote about here).
So why aren’t War in the Hall already?
Well, I can only speculate–few voters or nominating committee members ever explain themselves, which is their right. But, if I had to guess, I’d say the obvious reason is the lack of a convenient hook: no charismatic leader like Sly Stone or George Clinton to attract the attention of the Radical Chic combo (black revolutionaries, white luminaries) that tends to excite intellectual discourse; no easily defined style (I read the phrase “Latin funk” a lot…er…okay); a complete misunderstanding of rock and roll history that allows those sitting in judgment to think War was “just another funk band,” ignoring how their unique style was forged from L.A. doo-wop and garage bands, late-sixties neo-soul and West Coast jazz, with respect for, but relatively little deference to, James Brown or Sly Stone (a process of assimilation which is best defined on Rhino’s great, little noted, three-volume collection Brown Eyed Soul which I can’t recommend too highly).
The greatest sin of all then.
No easy answers.
Or, to use a throwback cliche–prophets are often without honor in their own land.
More precisely and emphatically than anyone working in the seventies–in rock and roll or elsewhere–War were the prophets of the backlash present.
Hello “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World Is a Ghetto,” and “I hear you’re working for the C.I.A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” Hey White America…you didn’t listen then, how’s it feel to join us, here at the precipice of the long fall defined by the new buzzwords? Decline. Collapse. Credit Default. Drone Warfare. Air Strikes. Government Shutdown. Or, the best description of the American prison system–even better than the New Jim Crow–Gulag?
Should have listened I guess.
Probably still should….
War were West Coast–East L.A. and universal. Old Testament prophets informed by a wary version of New Testament grace.
Spinners were East Coast, Philly by way of Detroit (a long apprenticeship at Motown that ended when their great, Stevie Wonder-produced breakout hit “It’s A Shame” was followed by an even greater Stevie Wonder-produced wonder called “We’ll Have it Made” which failed to cement their success).
They weren’t prophets themselves, but they served one. His name was Thom Bell and, as arranger, producer and (most often with his great partner, Linda Creed) songwriter, he operated under the guise of a Romantic Poet.
Though he had hits with a lot of artists, Bell had three principal vehicles during The Rising. Spinners (there was properly no “the” in their prime period), were the pinnacle of a crescendo that rose from the Del-fonics (very fine) and the Stylistics (truly great, but, due to their reliance on Russell Thompkin’s Jr., ultimately held within limits which Spinners, with three great leads and the kind of harmonies that come only from years of finishing each others breaths, easily transcended).
Bell had a vision that seemed apolitical. It seemed that way even on something as direct as “Ghetto Child.” It seemed that way then, and, if you don’t pay the extra-close attention which those glorious arrangements and heart-stopping vocals can so easily deflect, it might seem that way now.
Don’t be fooled. Spinners were the greatest vocal group of the last decade where that distinction meant anything. They were also the vehicle where Bell (with and without Creed) invested the best of himself.
What we want Bell and Spinners essentially said, over and over, is to belong.
If War were already counting the loss (even as they hoped for the best), Bell’s Spinners were exploring a promise that would never quite be kept…on the assumption that, even if it wasn’t, it would be worth articulating.
One of the other acts on this year’s ballot is N.W.A., the gangsta rap pioneers who eventually sprang from the Compton streets War long before warned were slipping away. I didn’t vote for N.W.A. this time around (though I think they are worthy and will get in at some point).
Put simply, the rejection of the visions War and Spinners offered during The Rising–our inability to hear and heed the warning they sometimes implied and sometimes stated openly–made N. W.A. inevitable, necessary, cathartic and nowhere near effective.
The legal barriers once confronted by the Civil Rights movement are down. They were down in 1970, when War and Spinners had their first big Pop hits.
The walls that divide the “modern” acts on this year’s ballot (indie acts like Green Day and Nine Inch Nails along with N.W.A.–page still white, ink still black, still no gettin’ together) from each other are still standing.
Higher than ever.
Really, really should have listened….Really, really still should.
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. (UPDATE: My bad. It was brother Dave on the lead vocal for “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” though Ray wrote it.)
“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.)