Tuesday, July 11, 2006

45s: Crooks and criers

"Runaway," by Del Shannon
Written by Del Shannon and Max Crook

At some point in my pre-teen years, I learned that rock and roll history went back further than Frampton Comes Alive. Probably this epiphany took place when, out of curiosity, or while sick with chicken pox, I put my parents’ copy of the American Graffiti soundtrack on the turntable. One of the early blockbuster music compilations, the AGS helped fuel the I Love the Fifties revival that used up so much of America’s time in the mid-1970s.

Short review: I thought the rockingest song was "Party Doll," by main man Buddy Knox (with the Rhythm Orchids—an ur-psychedelic band name). But my favorite far and away was Del Shannon’s "Runaway." Even though I could not quite figure out how someone in 1961 got his hands on a song featured on my neighbor’s Bonnie Raitt album.

It would be difficult to find a more dire year in rock than 1961. Teen idols, bland song interpreters, a castrated Elvis, Motown was mostly over the horizon—that our youth did not run lemming-like to the sea remains a miracle. But the action at the top of the charts was quite listenable. Dogs abounded, sure, but you did have "Please Mr. Postman" and Ben E. King and Dion and the Orbison epic "Running Scared."

You also had "Runaway," a fantastic number from the moment the organ-falling-down-a-staircase opening fills the AM dial. It’s haunting. It’s got boss echo. It’s in minor chords! Shannon is revved up from the first word, like he’s been told he has one take and then the studio gets turned over to a local jazz combo cutting a single for the saxophonist’s grandma.

By the time he throws himself into the chorus he has forgotten to be jittery.

By the time the bizarre and unforgettable organ solo takes over—did we really need the Doors after this?—Shannon sounds too drained to cry another Why? Why? Why?

Any piece of crap can be a classic. This is a great song.

A guy named Max Crook came up with what we know today as one of the most famous instrumental breaks/organ freakouts in rock history. Rather than crib, let me throw it to this
lovingly researched article for a few details:

Max Crook took a small guitar contact microphone and wedged it onto the soundboard of the studio's Steinway grand piano with a piece of newspaper. "I then started setting up all of these little 'boxes.' Needless to say, the entire studio came to a halt. Everyone came out of the control booth and gathered around me to scope what I was doing. They were maybe hoping to pick up a trick. But in those days, I had all of my equipment camouflaged, because I didn't want anyone to steal my ideas. I hooked up a 'box' that had a hole on the top. What that did was control slap echo. I arranged it myself with a garden spring, and when I played a note on the keyboard, it would fade out: 'wap, wap, wap, wap.' I could control the speed and amount of feedback. It wasn't reverb, it was true echo."

Thirty-seven years later, in Del Shannon's small hometown of Coopersville, Michigan, Crook revealed his secret keyboard to del's legion of fans at the annual summer tribute. "The Musitron is a three-octive, monophonic (single-note playing) keyboard with a slide on it that will allow me to play at a range of two-cycles-per-second up to beyond human hearing. Also, I can bend the notes, which was something uncommon at the time for mini-keyboards.... I can tune it to anything. I built the Musitron out of a variety of things. A clavioline was part of it, but I also threw in some resisters (too early for transistors), tubes from television sets, parts from appliances, and other such household items. That's basically what it consisted of."


Shannon learned his trade in bars and the Army, tough training grounds where a powerful voice had to make up for not only poor acoustics but, in the military’s case, regulations against cool haircuts. Though "Runaway" made him an international star, the song was only the first of a half-dozen hits that included "Hats Off to Larry"—also good, and maybe the only pop tune about someone named Larry—and "Little Town Flirt." His best-known follow-up, though, was "I Go to Pieces," a big hit he wrote for Peter and Gordon during the British Invasion.

His path crossed strange territory on its way to tragedy. During the early Sixties he recorded fellow Michiganer Bob Seger before anyone else. He was also the first American artist to cover a Beatles song ("From Me to You"). Over the years he survived an alliance with Rolling Stones producer/fuck-up Andrew Loog Oldham, battled alcoholism, ventured with Darin-like determination into psychedelia and garage rock, and was shepherded through comeback attempts by the likes of Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty.

Shannon, like Roy Orbison and many other contemporaries, developed a rabid and long-lived fan base in Europe, particularly the U.K. That kept him in front of audiences until he took his own life in 1990.

Monday, July 10, 2006

45s: Byrdman

"Listen to Her Heart," by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

I don’t know why I dislike Tom Petty so much. I like the Byrds. I own the first Traveling Wilburys album, not that I’m exceedingly proud of this. As roots rockers go Petty isn’t nearly as uninteresting as, say, the John Mellencamp avatars.

Petty has been a familiar voice and vaguely albino face for thirty years now, ever since "Breakdown" and its spooky guitar part became an instant part of classic rock radio. I remember my intro to him well. One day my dad explained the phrase "damn the torpedoes" to me while smashed out of his mind and driving at high speed on the so-called British side of small-town streets. I admit, listening to "Don’t Do Me Like That" at high volume during a state of abject terror can turn you against an artist’s music. Look what happened to Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

Whether on road trips or ten-minute errands, the sound of a Petty song sends me elsewhere on the dial faster than anything this side of the Aerosmith comeback years. Those of you with a classic rock station on one of your vehicle’s buttons recognize "Listen to Her Heart" represents only one of about fifteen Petty offerings on the cock rock playlist, and that it gets played a lot less often than "Don’t Do Me Like That."

So here we are.

I have of late contemplated a change in personal outlook. "You caught me in a transitional period," if I may quote Samuel L. Jackson to Tim Roth in Pulp Fiction. The new outlook, in brief, would be a transformation into a positive person. Not the relentless positive charge of an infomercial trying to convince you that eternal happiness depends on healthy bowels, but at least a peek into the lighter side of life, an alliance—temporary or permanent, I don’t know—with that side of humanity that sees the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. In with the Mary Richards, you dig, and out with Lou Grant.

In the interest of accentuating the positive in my new Anthony Robbins manner, I’m going to proclaim this Petty nugget a good verse:

You think you're gonna take her away
With your money and your cocaine
Keep thinkin' that her mind is gonna change
But I know everything is okay

Mention of cocaine: funny. Rhyming "okay" with "cocaine": howlingly suspect, yet excellent—in other words, poetry in the best rock tradition.

Declared "America’s band" by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, compared favorably with Springsteen by same, Petty and the Heartbreakers have clearly impressed someone. The man has a fan base. No doubt many of the fifty-three year-olds show up for his concerts in leather jackets bought especially for the occasion, wear them afterwards for a few days and embarrass their teenaged children. But Tom continues to tour and people continue to care.

I’ve heard he puts on a good show. I’ll never know. I try to avoid going into the fetal position in public.