Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dirges for dead teens

"Tell Laura I Love Her," by Ray Peterson (1961)
Written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh

The dead teenager genre was one of the go-to themes in the early years of rock. In tragedy after three-minute tragedy, singers told us of One True Loves who died young. By the way, this genre should be distinguished from simple thrill-seeking recklessness, i.e. those punks in "Dead Man's Curve," driving too fast on dangerous roads. No, the dead teenager genre was littered with victims. They died tragically because of poor driving conditions ("Last Kiss"), poor driving period ("Don't Worry Baby"), suicide ("Patches"), and the broken hearts, oh the broken hearts, behind the senseless acts.

A broken heart brings us to "Tell Laura I Love Her," Ray Peterson's story of Tommy, a boy determined to get the money to buy his girl a wedding ring. Possibly incapable of holding a job, trapped in a world without lottery tickets, Tommy has no choice but to do what any of us would do in his situation. He enters a small-town auto race.

In all the genre, three moments ring out with the hysteric sincerity found only in the teen soul:

• The singer of the Shangri-Las crying, "Lookoutlookoutlookoutlookout" as that candy store-haunting bad boy Jimmy slides his bike in "Leader of the Pack;"

• "Teen Angel's" narrator howling "They buried you today;"

• Peterson's chorus on "Tell Laura I Love Her." It's quite a feat of sustained emotion—he has to sing it three or four times, the last from beyond the grave.

In Britain, the record company cited the song's "tastelessness" and destroyed its copies of "Tell Laura I Love Her." But America likes its tragedy, especially when its sappy, and Peterson's oldies radio staple followed the even more painful-not-in-a-good-way "Teen Angel" into the Top Ten. In the future, dead teenager balladeer Dickie Lee added it as a deep cut to whatever LP included his hit "Patches." Those had to be cheery recording sessions.

Peterson went on to start his own label and scored another big hit with the Phil Spector production "Corrina, Corrina." On his way out of fame, he recorded "The Wonder of You," best remembered as big-selling Elvis schlock, before taking his four-octave voice first to the nightclubs and then to church as a minister.

Monday, November 12, 2012

45s: Audit rock with America

"You Can Do Magic," by America (1982)
Written by Russ Ballard

The saga of audit rock continues.

After a successful run that ended with "Sister Golden Hair" in 1975, America spent years releasing songs that never escaped bubbling under status on the charts despite the presence of super-producer George Martin. Already on the wane with the public, the band took another hit when founding member Dan Peek left in 1977 to get both clean and Jesus. With their brand of folk rock deluged by disco, New Wave, and all the other trends of the time, radio listeners safely assumed they were done hearing America's brand of adulterated Harvest-era Neil Young.

It looked like an early retirement, to say the least. Because members Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley had scored with "A Horse with No Name" at age nineteen, their big-time career seemed over before they could even die due to the Age 27 Death Curse.

As the Eighties arrived and their thirtieth birthdays approached, Beckley and Bunnell did what a lot of faltering acts did at that time: enlisted a member of Toto and a bunch of other old pros to write them better songs and provide in-studio heft. Timothy B. Schmit, Christopher Cross, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, and most notably Argent member Russ Ballard pitched in to bring America back to Americans.

"You Can Do Magic" did away with the folky sensibility and center-stage harmonies that gave America what charms the band possessed. No matter. Pedestrian ruled the pop world in 1982, and "You Can Do Magic" walked on two feet with a vengeance. It was a crap song. But by pairing a has-been familiar name with generic pop played by pros, "You Can Do Magic" fulfilled the audit rock formula and, of course, hit big.

I have no idea if Beckley and Bunnell had spent the previous decade being fleeced by their management and/or the record company. Okay, the record company for sure. Record companies fleeced everyone. Anyway, their return to the Top Ten provided the funds (if needed) to dig out lost royalties and in general uncover all the usual accounting crimes we attribute to the non-musicians then running the record industry.

No magic show is complete without a disappearing act, alas. America's comeback, like that of the Hollies and others, proved short lived. Ballard hijacked their next album and left Beckley and Bunnell little more than the vocal parts. Disillusioned, they turned to synths and drum machines, co-wrote songs with the sublime (Jimmy Webb) and the ridiculous (Bill "Will Robinson" Mumy), and soon found themselves with plenty of time to plan their many hits compilations.

Monday, April 23, 2012

45s: Audit rock with the Moody Blues

The audit rock exploration continues.

"Your Wildest Dreams," by the Moody Blues (1986)
Written by Justin Hayward

I admit 1986 was a little late for audit rock. And that the Moodies' earlier freak hit, "The Voice," could have filled the role of raking in dollars for the necessary legal team. Maybe that happened and they got to keep their fair share of the money in 1986. But "Your Wildest Dreams" is more completely bland, more obviously a pimp's reach for mainstream cash. Whether you want the money for a team of lawyers or a third concubine, a last desperate grab at the gold ring and the related moment of relevance is vital to the audit rock idea.

A popular video helped sales. Why did a bunch of mustachioed middle-aged men playing double-necked guitars and tambourines for a Natalie Wood lookalike light the MTV generation on fire? I don't know. Maybe it was the black-and-white flashback stuff. Or the out-of-nowhere dance number (also requisite). Of course, it helped that "Your Wildest Dreams" was generic pop, that the band had finally moved away from the exhausting orchestra-based prog and instead embraced electronic doodads of all descriptions. That's tiresome in a different way, but at least at the time it sounded novel.

I have very little to say about the numbing whiteness of "Your Wildest Dreams" except that (1) 1986 often sucked and (2) it was a worse-than-usual few months all around on the Adult Contemporary chart, as "Dreams" dethroned Howard Jones before Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love" committed Moodycide (and for that matter culturecide). Music doesn't get worse than solo Cetera, but Miami Sound Machine and Huey Lewis followed, and compared to that Murderer's Row, the late era Moodies were the Talking Heads.

Yet another British Invasion band, the Moody Blues, like many of their brethren, broke with a cover song, "Go Now," originally done by soulster Bessie Banks. After treading water for a couple of years they embraced Sixties Seriousness with a vengeance. Days of Future Passed, recorded with their good friends the London Festival Orchestra (studio aces often mis-identified as the London Symphony Orchestra by AOR jocks). It was a song cycle, natch. You really couldn't get anywhere in 1967 unless you recorded a song cycle.

The classical instrumentation and pretentiousness fooled a generation that took rock music way too seriously into thinking Future Passed was art. No one makes that claim today, as we all know "Nights in White Satin" and "Tuesday Afternoon" have entertained multiple generations of bikers, stoners, and other divers classic rock-loving philistines. Not that those singles didn't have a sound. Both are, well, moody--"Tuesday Afternoon" creeps me out, actually, and not just because of the flute solo.

"White Satin," meanwhile, is a so-called rock epic. Also moody. When I was a kid I thought it was "Knights in White Satin." Now that would be cool, might even place the song in the Tolkien Rock genre with "Misty Mountain Hop." "White Satin" throws down Mellotron--again, you didn't get serious Sixties cred without a Mellotron or at least a Theramin or Moog--to go with giant bass drums and Mike Pinder's spoken word climax, the only verse in rock history to inspire music fans to attempt air poetic recitation.

After "Your Wildest Dreams" the band embraced electronic music in a big way, though I believe one early 90s album offered yet another flute instrumental, this one an entire jam. By then the Moodies were experiencing the inevitable symptoms of Been Around Too Long Syndrome, i.e. extreme personnel turnover, lawsuits by former members, hiatus-dom, and (presumably) double bills with Kansas, or bands like Kansas.

Note: that the band tries to beat down Homer and Ned Flanders on a Simpsons episode redeems all of the above.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

45s: Audit Rock with the Hollies

"Stop, In the Name of Love," by the Hollies (1983)
Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland

Our exploration of audit rock continues.

Choosing to cover the Supremes brought the Hollies full circle. In the Sixties, the band had its first U.K. hits with covers, as they and many others fought to remind the world of the real rock music that had existed before the likes of Fabian and Connie Francis took over the charts. Fronted by excellent vocalist Allan Clarke and powered by the most dynamite harmonies this side of the Beach Boys, the Hollies became one of the best of the Sixties singles bands, a pop force that broke with the likes of the dramatic “Bus Stop” and sunny “On a Carousel,” added Caribbean instrumentation to make “Carrie-Anne” even better than it would’ve been, and got kind of winsomely weird with "Jennifer Eccles."

By then, though, guitarist and harmony star Graham Nash wanted to explore his inner singer-songwriter while the rest of the band, in a misguided reach for relevance, recorded an album of Dylan covers, a move that ranks with the Monkees making Head as a lesson in career self-immolation. Label problems set in, Clarke left, and the Hollies looked as dead as Herman’s Hermits.

The fluke hit “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)”—essentially a cover of a Credence song John Fogarty hadn’t gotten around to writing yet—betrayed everything great the band had done but brought Clarke back in time to record “The Air That I Breathe,” an Alan Parsons overproduction and one of the few hit songs about post-coital satisfaction. Clarke was still in good voice—or voices, as I think Parsons octuple-tracked him for the song’s chorus—but “The Air That I Breathe” seemed to close the book on the group.

Enter, audit rock.

Because it's difficult to believe the Hollies fared much better on the financial end than their fellow British Invaders. Hell, every artist got ripped off then, regardless of nationality or genre. Even that canny careerist Mick Jagger managed to lose track of the rights to most of the Stones’ Sixties music. “Long Cool Woman” was one of those singles released by a band’s former label, and musicians always get screwed when that happens. The Hollies soldiered on for a while. But by the Eighties they were golden oldies, far enough removed from their salad days to need funds, and (presumably) wise enough to know they’d been fleeced.

Okay, I admit I have no idea that the Hollies had a legal leg to stand on when it came to back royalties, or if they really released the song to raise money for the audit. For all I know, “Stop, in the Name of Love” just sat around the record company vaults for years and caught the ear of some sharpie exec in need of product. Maybe the label or the band had some ancient contract-related obligation to release a Hollies single before the end of 1983. Or, maybe, the Hollies were owed money and, after consulting a Ouija board, learned that the marketplace hungered for high harmony remakes of old Motown songs.

They chose well, in any case. “Stop, in the Name of Love” was one of the Supremes’ better numbers, part of the group’s run of five straight Number Ones. It hardly tested Clarke’s pipes. As far as I know the other Hollies did not recreate the famous Stop choreography. Then again, why should they have stretched? People wanted uncomplicated things in 1983, and the Hollies name alone was probably enough to appeal to nostalgic Boomers. “Stop” is by no means a generic piece of pop. The Hollies turned it into one for a while, though, a disappointing end point for both the band and the song. (Though sometimes reviled, “The Air That I Breathe” was at least distinctive, and melodic enough to inspire Radiohead to rip it off.)

“Stop” wasn’t a huge hit. But it did Top Twenty business in the U.S., and if the band actually saw the money from it—that is, if it wasn’t some vault detritus under label control—they should have been able to afford the lawyers necessary to dig out royalties from their earlier, better days. If nothing else, it got the band members, whoever they were by 1983, onto Solid Gold-ish TV shows, and possibly inspired a viewer or two to investigate the Hollies back catalog. That alone is a worthy outcome. It also made the Hollies part of a sub-sub-genre of British Invasion acts producing audit rock. To be honest, the Moody Blues and Manfred Mann, to say nothing of George Harrison, didn't deserve to keep their company.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

45s: Audit rock, hold the horns

"Hard for Me to Say I'm Sorry/Get Away," by Chicago (1982)
Written by Peter Cetera and David Foster

How pervasive was audit rock in 1982? Almost as pervasive as the guys from Toto, who seemingly played on half the hit songs of the era. Proof: Chicago's comeback blast, "Hard for My to Say I'm Sorry" knocked Steve Miller's audit rock blockbuster "Abracadabra" out of the Number One spot on the charts before being supplanted by "Abracadabra" a week or two later.

Chicago entered the early Eighties in about as bad a situation as you could (not) want. Terry Kath, the lead singer/songwriter and guitarist, had died in a gunshot accident. Their record company had declared them over and dropped them after they refused advice to drop the horn section. One of the biggest groups of the previous decade--particularly as a touring act--faced obscurity.

Enter Foster and Toto with a new sound that downplayed the band's famously explosive horn section and went all in on Cetera's wretched power ballads. That Chicago had to slum on the soundtrack of the Darryl-Hannah-is-naked-and-making-it-with-a-French-chick classic Summer Lovers tells you all you need to know about their fortunes at the time. Summer Lovers! Directed by the master who gave the world The Boy in the Plastic Bubble AND The Blue Lagoon.*

The movie did bupkis but Chicago's theme song, as noted, went to the top. Some radio stations also elected to play the song's propulsive horn addendum "Get Away," meaning Chicago filled up AM/FM bandwidth in four-minute-plus chunks.

Not that I'm saying the original Chicago was awesome, but even if you compare "Sorry" to the earlier hit ballads (say, "Wishing You Were Here," or even Cetera's "If You Leave Me Now"), we're talking a step off the artistic cliff. "Hard for Me to Say I'm Sorry" is so bad Lionel Ritchie might have passed on it. I stress, "might."

But the song did its job. Chicago bounced back to commercial relevance and ran off another string of hits, each worse than the last, until Cetera took the same sound into his post-Chicago solo career, where he dragged poor Amy Grant into perdition and actually, improbably plunged Cher into unexplored new depths of pop awfulness**. (You can't keep a good woman down, though. Apotheosis was right around the corner.) The band, meanwhile, turned out to have a terminal case of Ceteratosis. Most severe symptom: enlisting dreck goddess Diane Warren for "Look Away," though that at least kept her too busy to write more songs for Aerosmith.

* Also Grease, a musical directed by someone who clearly had never watched a musical in his life.

** That would be "After All," more movie music, this time from the blockbuster Chances Are. An anonymous Wikipedia writer sneaks in a bit of commentary, saying, "Also, this song has been found to have headache-reducing powers due to its low frequency." Actually it gave me one.

Monday, March 05, 2012

45s: Audit rock

In the early Eighties, a number of venerable acts--some sporting only a couple of original members--returned to the charts with freak hits. It was as if the first wave of Boomers, then entering their mid-thirties, had decided en masse to seize control of popular music one ... more ... time in order to prove the superiority of their taste. Time and again listeners experienced that feeling of "we can't miss you if you won't go away" as brought to them by everyone from the Hollies to Steve Miller to Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

A friend of mine once told me that one of these comeback singles, Yes's blockbuster "Owner of a Lonely Heart," was released to raise funds sufficient to audit/sue the band's old record company for unpaid royalties. From such humble beginnings did rise the phenomenon of Audit Rock. A sub-genre of mostly bad (or at best generic) pop hits, true, though crap in the worthy cause of extracting income actually earned by the artists, even if they only got back about ten cents on the dollar (and they did).

Still, crap it mostly was, and crap, too, deserves it day. Welcome to the first in a series, the Monsters of Audit Rock.

"Abracadabra," by the Steve Miller Band (1982)
Written by Steve Miller

The pride of Milwaukee, family friends with Les Paul and Mary Ford and later childhood chums with Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller lit up the Seventies with a hatful of smash singles and reliably good-selling long plays that expressed his vision of blues-infused classic rock. An industry trouper since the mid-Sixties, Miller did a musical internship in Chicago with Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and other giants, then rambled toward San Francisco, where an early version of his band backed Chuck Berry on a live album and lived. Miller continued with psychedelic blues until the poppy-but-mildy trippy "The Joker" broke him through to the other side, that is, the side with huge sales and stadium concerts.

Some of his hits rocked harder ("Fly Like an Eagle") than others ("Jungle Love"), but all have remained staples of AOR/classic rock radio, to such a degree I wonder who really needs to hear any of them again, no offense to Steve. In other words, his sound connected. How big was Steve Miller? He shared the headliner spot on a tour with the Eagles in 1978.

I can hear what you're saying. Huge in 1978. A comeback kid just four years later? Four years qualifies as a mere hiatus in the music industry.

Under most circumstances, I'd agree with you. But the change of decades represented a massive realignment in pop music in the U.S. The reasons are many. Those most mentioned include disco, MTV, punk/New Wave, and--quite pertinent to classic rock--a new unwillingness by record companies to support an artist through years of modest-selling albums in hopes of building a colossus. By the Eighties you had to deliver early on in your career, the exception being bands the companies already had invested in for years, like REO Speedwagon and the J. Giles Band.

Anyway, disco and crossover country and everything else in 1979 wiped Miller's kind of classic rock basically off the charts. Meanwhile, the more progressive punk and New Wave noises captured the discerning youth demographic that set trends, a demographic that had in earlier times gone into raptures over blues explorations, prog musicianship, flute solos, Tolkien references, and all the other AOR hallmarks.

Guitar rock did not die in 1980. Seger remained with us, Mellencamp lurked on the edges, Springsteen was being pelted by gamma ray radiation, and lesser lights like Greg Kihn and Billy Squire could still get a hearing. But relatively few of these veteran acts survived, and relatively few of their replacements thrived. Indeed, a great many of the vets skipped the Eighties altogether, to return in triumph as nostalgia acts at a casino near you.

Miller tapped his pop sense for his 1982 album Abracadabra. The title track became Steve's first trip to the top of Casey Kasem's countdown since "The Joker" nine years earlier. I knew people who owned the album. I don't recall it as bad or dismal or anything. It's just seemed, you know, kind of Eddie Moneyish. Better, of course, but nothing more than totally pro, comfortable guitar rock for the challenge-averse, an allegory to that breakfast you order every time you go to the corner pancake house. I mean, that's okay. It's a good breakfast. The price is right. I like sausage, kill me why don't you?

The single was catchy enough, with some of the mild humor Miller often brought to his songs, and he rode that voice distortion and all the other sound effects to hitdom in multiple cultures. In Canada it even dethroned Charlene's mighty gay anthem "I've Never Been to Me." Such success undoubtedly gave Miller--already a savvier-than-usual rock businessman--the slush fund he needed to get some of his hard earned back from Capitol.

Audit outcome: the lawyers said abracadabra, and Miller received fourteen cents on the dollar minimum, with the ongoing royalties from his diamond-certified greatest hits disk held in reserve in case the checks stop coming.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Epics Made Easy: Njal's Saga, Chapter 6

Previously: Pirates defeated. Inheritance won. Money doled out to the proper backers. It’s been a good summer for Hrut, Icelandic adventurer.

At the beginning of this lengthy chapter, our man Hrut decides to return to Iceland. King Harald honors him with much ... flour. Queen Gunnhild gives him a gold bracelet, to which Hrut replies without leering, “You have given me many good gifts.” But Gunnhild also throws down womanly sorcery, saying, “If I have as much power over you as I think, the spell I now lay on you will prevent your ever enjoying the woman in Iceland on whom you have set your heart.” To use a malapropism from the great bard Norm Crosbyssen, “Hrut is going to be hruting soon.”

Once in Iceland, Hrut rides off to plan his wedding feast. The value of his property has increased in his absence. While contemplating a few new crofts or a trade for the Reading Railroad, Hrut thanks his brother Hoskuld for administering the property by giving him flour. Icelandic weddings being what they are, the brothers, their Uncle Ozur, and sixty men ride off to get Hrut hitched to the beauteous Unn, daughter of super-chieftain Mord Fiddle.

After the ceremony, and what had to have been one of the loudest receptions of all time, Hrut takes Unn home and puts her in charge of the household. “Everyone was pleased at this,” says the narrative. Alas, all the winter passes without the couple consummating the marriage. In the spring, Unn rides to the Althing—the yearly meeting of the Viking parliament—and tells her father she’s unhappy. After hearing she’s both in charge and treated well, the lawyerly Mord says, “All the evidence speaks better of your husband than of you.” We’re told the newlyweds “got on well together” in the summer, but come winter Hrut again becomes as cold as a Reykjavik outhouse. Spring brings no thaw. Leaving his brooding wife at the household, Hrut blows off the Althing and heads for the fjords.

Next time: How to get an Icelandic divorce.