Rock on Record

Transistor Heaven: The Next Generation

I guess that September of 1972 was a big time for me. It was my first month of high school and first time at a non-parochial school if you don’t count kindergarten. I had been liberated from the yoke of the educational nunnery and free to live out the remainder of my days as a secular humanist. In truth, they hadn’t been all that bad the last couple of years, what with their folk masses and the stamp of approval they gave to Jesus Christ Superstar.

Yes, there was a recent infiltration of “messiah rock” into the charts—–think “Spirit in the Sky” and “Put Your Hand in the Hand” (even “King Herod’s Song” from JCS was a minor hit at least in my area). But in the larger musical world (in those days for me that meant WMEX 1510, Boston’s “NEW Music Authority”) reflected the wider temporal world of big ideas, big ideals and multi-culturalism, not dogma. The variety of styles in the Top 30 songs of their countdown for the week of September ’72 was impressive: along with about ten classic R&B numbers there was power pop, adult contemporary, prog rock, folk rock, an Elvis song and even a novelty instrumental with “Popcorn.” As music reflects the era, the times felt expansive instead of the strangely insular vibe that comes with our more “interconnected” 21st century.

This is an idea that I’ve tried to relate to my now 17 year-old son. While he is more open-minded than a lot of others, he still has the instinctive need to make fun of dad’s “stoner rock” even though he has wistfully acknowledged its superiority in an unguarded moment. I was good about it, not claiming victory and running out to buy a “I May Be Old But At Least I Saw All The Cool Bands” t-shirt. When I was driving the Ry-man every day this summer to his seasonal job at a day camp, we had the old radio tug-of-war game going. It was a Snapchat pop station (as I would call it) vs. the Classic Hits morning drive team. I had sorta raised him on the latter so we were all good to go on that (though I had a problem finding any redeeming value in the former) and we reached radio symbiosis one morning in July when the slinky introduction to the O’Jays song that was #1 in Boston 45 years ago this week. I was all ready with the opening cry of “What they do?” Ryan was soon joining in with “Backstabbers” in that full-throated way of his–he’s on his high-school A-Capella team. It became such a favorite that I was compelled to dig up my best-of O’jays CD.

The O’Jays smooth but muscular arrangement and the pointed vocal about your so-called friends trying hit on your old lady (even showing up when you’re not home!) is but one example of the imagination, creative verve and sheer variety of the records that made up that week’s survey on WMEX. At #5, the Main Ingredient (featuring lead singer Cuba Gooding, Sr.) delivers one of the all-time great “advice songs,” that informal genre that started to fade as the Me Decade took hold earnest. The Beatles were experts at this with such songs as “She Loves You,” “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” and “Hey Jude.” Many R&B artists were just as adept at this form of lyrical magnanimity.


The Main Ingredient, introduced by the late Don Cornelius on “Soul Train. The fact that they’re lip-syncing to the record can’t hide the smooth charisma of Cuba Gooding Sr.

“OK, so your heart’s broken,” concedes Gooding on the tune’s memorable spoken intro. After calming down his extremely distressed friend (“You say you even talking about dying?”), he convincingly assures his pal, and the rest of us, that even though “Everybody Plays the Fool” sometimes before you know it the shoe will be on the other foot. A similar heart-to-heart dialogue opens “Starting All Over Again” by Mel & Tim, the Stax Records cousin act who had hit the U.S. Top Ten three years earlier with the euphemistic “Backfield in Motion.” Well-articulated hopes of romantic reconciliation also informed the 5th Dimension’s “If I Could Reach You” and Rod Stewart’s “You Wear it Well.” Other lyrical gambits ranged from lava-lamp philosophizing (“Nights in White Satin”), to space-program satirizing (Nilsson’s “Spaceman”), to early midlife reconciling (the lost classic “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” by Dan O’Keefe).

At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, the diversity of just this small sample exposes the cultural banalities of today’s “woke” generation. But us baby boomers (esp. those of us that are radio programmers) could also learn a little bit about variety these days. Ryan’s musical horizons would probably widen considerably if Dad’s station weren’t basically rotating the same few dozen songs all the time. I note my own pencil notches next to long-overplayed hits like the Raspberries “Go All the Way” and the Doobies’ “Listen to the Music.” Even back then a prescient Rolling Stone reviewer said that the latter song changed from a “volume-raiser” to a “station-switcher” in record time. A quick scan of the Top 30 suggests infusing fresh blood into the classic-hits format would not be difficult. A few I would nominate off the top of my head: Presley’s lusty “Burning Love” which still sounds as vital as it did when recorded during the King’s comeback era. How about “Freddie’s Dead” from Curtis Mayfield’s superb Superfly soundtrack (which was #1 on the album survey)? Maybe even “Loving You Just Crossed My Mind” by the nearly-forgotten singer-songwriter Sam Neely, though I’m sure that’s asking too much. Even the inclusion of “Witchy Woman” by the too-big-to-fail Eagles would ease the stress of hearing “Take it Easy” for the eight millionth time.
WHAT SONGS FROM THE SURVEY WOULD YOU LIKE COMMERCIAL RADIO TO PLAY MORE OFTEN?

There are many to choose from and even more if you scan the list of a dozen hitbound songs (“1st on 1510″) where, among the more familiar material, there are couple of nice outliers: the infectious “Stop” by the Newark singing group The Lorelei (a favorite record of the Northern Soul gang in England) and “No” by the Rascals spinoff group Bulldog. However, the inclusion here of the frivolous Dutch duo Mouth and MacNeal reminded me of the notion that there’s always a little bit of hell in Transistor Heaven. So I must mention the perversely naïve “Playground in My Mind” where Clint Holmes imagines marrying off a bunch of little kids as he watches them on the swing set. If released today, this song would be borderline prosecutable. And don’t even get me started on the Wayne Newton song that snuck in at #29. “Can’t You Hear the Music”?? Sure, I can hear it—that’s the whole problem!

But I’d like to finish with the now-obscure “American City Suite” which back 45 years ago was holding down the middle spot in the Top 30. Even then it was a bit of an anomaly, an 8-minute three-part bittersweet ode to the New York City. Songwriter Terry Cashman, half of this folk duo called Cashman & West, is better known for his later solo hit “Talkin’ Baseball.” So if this song were Willie Mays, it would start with his spectacular back-to-the-plate catch in the deepest recesses of the Polo Grounds outfield in the 1954 World Series and end across town in 1973 with him falling down after striking out for the Mets in 1973, his last season. This song may get a bit melodramatic as it traces a tendentious timeline from doo-wop and friendly neighbors on front stoops to the depressed Panic in Needle Park days of the early 70s. But with today’s current events, it’s hard not to be a little moved at the end of an epic song with “American” in its title while hearing, “They tell me that a friend is dying/And there is nothing in the world I can do.”

So I’ll try to guide my son in part by turning him onto what he may benefit from in terms of the musical olden times, while recognizing that it’s got to be his world going forward. But I still say he got his old soul from Dad. When our local Radio Shack was about to close its doors for the last time, it was he who encouraged me to get a spare transistor radio before it was too late. I owned one concurrently since the days I brought one along on my afternoon paper route (see Transistor Heaven, Part One). Today, my old transistor sits on the kitchen window sill, ready for Red Sox games or the classical station as none of the oldies stations can ever match the variety and pleasure of my own collection. But in case that little palm-sized device ever goes kaput, I’ve got a spare one ready to take me into my golden years, thanks to the chip off the old block.

Kingdom of Love in the Boston Rock Scene: It Takes a Village to Raise a Rock Star

Text by Rick Ouellette
Band photos by Joshua Pickering

Kingdom of Love are a great example of the current collaborative nature of the Boston-area rock scene, which I’ve been following to various degrees since the gloriously grungy late 70s heyday of the Rat club in Kenmore Square. KOL is the duo of singer-songwriter-guitarists Linda Viens and Richard Lamphear. On their luminous 5-song EP called Ghosts they use a few guest players (mainly on bass and drums) to supplement their sound. But for their late June record release party at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Kingdom of Love became like a glam-rock juggernaut with as many as eight players at a time. This goes a long way to demonstrating the supportive and intermingling nature of the current indie community in town, which is chock full of friends and acquaintances who came up in the vibrant 80s post-punk scene. But more on that later, what about the CD?


Linda Viens (right) and Sandra Marcelino

Ghosts begins in quiet-time mode with “Play it On”and a reflective piano motif and Vien’s airy vocal expressing a wide-view reverie on a life where “the song’s never finished.” Even after the drums kick in the song gives the impression of floating over a lush landscape. Through the four remaining tracks the same balm to the senses prevails even when they’re pumping up the dance beats, such a welcome vibe in these unsettling times. “Two Souls” has a bouncy New Wave-style keyboard hook and a sharp and sensuous lyric about two searching lakeside lovers and would be a big summertime hit in a more just world. The next two songs are finely-crafted duets between Viens and Lamphear. The first, “When You Follow,” is notable for its love-in-the-ruins lyric and Scott Getchell’s haunting trumpet, while “Starmates” is a vaporous outer-space romance.

The electro dance-rock groove returns for “Karma Song, which, along with “Two Souls, ” is the pick-to-click of this CD. “I was a superhero buried underground,” declares the song’s narrator, “I was that grown-up kid afraid to make a sound/Live in fear too long and there is no one else on whom to lay the blame.” The struggle for self-actualization has rarely sounded so rapturous. It will hard not to get swept up in this tune by the time Linda gets to the buoyant chorus (“I want to give, give again and earn my karma”) for the second time and Richard lets it rip on lead guitar.

Those positive reverberations were even more evident at the record-release show where the enthusiastic crowd was all in as soon as Viens stepped up to the center mike in an all-silver suit. Viens fronted a large funk orchestra called the Crown Electric Company in the late 90s so this expanded set-up is not an unknown quantity for her. The talented ensemble seen below is a good example of the Boston scene’s current mix-and-match flexibility where many musicians take time from their current bands to get involved in other projects.


The super-sized Kingdom of Love. from l to r: Sue Minichiello, Ben Aiken (keys), Sandra Marcelino, Gabe Rossi, Johnny Berosh (drums), Linda Viens, Zachary Rochester and Richard Lamphear.

Back-up singers Sue and Sandra were also involved in the recent well-received production of Hair by the revived Boston Rock Opera and BRO director Eleanor Ramsay designed Ghosts dazzling jacket art. Linda, who has sung in many past BRO productions, assumed the role of costume designer for Hair, while Zachary Rochester (the bass player at the show) had a lead role as Hud. This kind of fluid musical community, and KOL’s overall holistic approach to their craft, is a very encouraging sign and would be a great model for young musicians starting out in a field where it can be tough sledding most of the time. A local support system in the end can more gratifying than the current lone-wolf pop star model. There it seems the thought is the only was to the top is trying your luck on a TV talent show in front of a panel of celebrity judges who are likely to gush over anything but where in the end there is only “winner.” Instead, be like Kingdom of Love and find your tribe, work hard until you come up with a line as good as “I was a superhero buried underground” and in the end you may just earn all the good karma you’d ever want.

Find out more at https://kingdomoflovemusic.com/
To see my previous post about the Boston Rock Opera click https://rickouellettereelandrock.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/the-return-of-the-boston-rock-opera-the-moon-is-back-in-the-7th-house/

Rick Ouellette’s new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available online or by messaging the author. A 30-page excerpt can be seen at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html (Or click on the book cover in the right-hand column here)

Rock Band or Law Firm? The Invasion of the Would-Be Supergroups

Jeff Beck, Roger McQuinn, Paul Kantner, Jack Bruce, Keith Emerson, Leslie West. These are a few of the names burned into the pages of rock music history. They made their reputations in iconic bands of the Sixties like the Yardbirds, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain and the Byrds. But bands are invariably fragile entities, from the chart-toppers right down to the local covers group. Think of even your two or three best pals in the world and try to imagine working and travelling with them nearly non-stop for an indefinite period of time—not to mention with other people you may not be nearly as tight with—and you can see where even many of the most successful of groups have pretty limited time spans.

But an advantage of success is that you meet other talented peers and these connections invariably lead to new bands once the bloom is off the rose of your first star-making gig. For every Paul McCartney or Eric Clapton who had the right stuff for lasting solo careers, there were dozens of others more suited to being role players (for more on this check out some of my entries in the “We’ve All Gone Solo” category to the right) or nominal leaders who needed complimentary wingmen. With the surnames of these guys (they were almost exclusively male) already well-known to fans, this re-shuffling of the rock-musician deck led to a number of law-firm or acronym group names throughout the 70s and 80s. While some found even greater fame in this incarnation (notably Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Emerson, Lake and Palmer) many others had just a shining moment or two before splintering again, with others going solo and/or re-forming their more famous band, especially as the classic-rock “legacy act” thing became big starting in the Nineties. Here are nine of the more notable examples of this curious sidebar of pop history.

West, Bruce and Laing

I start with this power trio as perhaps the most natural fit in this category and who seemed most destined for bigger things as a unit. Felix Pappalardi produced most of the records by Cream, maybe the original pre-designated “supergroup.” When he hooked up with fellow New Yorker Leslie West in 1969, they formed Mountain as a sort of Americanized version of Cream, alternating gritty blues-rock (courtesy of West’s gruff vocals and blazing lead guitar) with an almost baroque take on pop songcraft (Pappalardi’s specialty). In 1972, with Mountain winding down and Cream long since broken up, West teamed up with Mountain drummer Corky Laing and Cream’s Jack Bruce, who neatly reprised his role as powerhouse bassist and co-lead singer, also Felix’s part in Mountain.

There was a lot of buzz circling around West, Bruce and Laing, who got a nifty million-dollar, three-album deal after a bidding war. Their first album, Why Dontcha, hit #26 in the U.S. charts and ticket sales were brisk for their concerts. The bloozy rockers dished out by the wrestler-sized West (like “Pleasure” and the title track) were popular with the decibel-crazed longhairs of the era and Bruce’s somewhat softer material balanced them out. In 1973 came the pretty good follow-up Whatever Turns You On but that LP stalled at #87 and rock music’s perennial elephant-in-the-room, hard drug abuse, would lead to bitter in-fighting and WBL never toured again. Their official break-up wasn’t announced until early ’74 around the time an indulgent live album (featuring a bum-blasting 13-minute version of the Stones’ “Play With Fire”) was released to complete the three-album deal. Jack Bruce would move on to his many projects, which in 1993 included the not-dissimilar BBM (with his Cream frenemy Ginger Baker and Irish guitar great Gary Moore) and, in 2005, a one-off Cream reunion. Mountain re-formed for one more studio album and, after Pappalardi’s death in 1983, West and Laing played under the Mountain banner for many years with a rotating cast of bass players.

Beck, Bogert and Appice

As the second of the Yardbird’s three iconic axemen, the mercurial Jeff Beck had a lot to do with the creation of the modern rock guitar sound but with his vast array of squealing, whooshing or stabbing sound effects, he was the most difficult to pin down. Bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice were forerunners of the heavy hard-rock engine stokers with their work in Vanilla Fudge and Cactus. Beck had met the package-deal rhythm section as early as 1967 with intentions of getting a thing together but contractual issues and the early edition of the Jeff Beck Group (which launched Rod Stewart) kept this from happening until 1972. The trio did some well-received shows and started working on an album, released in early ’73. I loved the BBA album as a 15 year-old (and still do) and it’s very much an article of its era. Beck’s bracing, sometimes unhinged, guitar solos and brash power chords, Appice’s walloping drum fills and Bogert’s hyperactive bass are well-matched to the slap-happy arrangements of a do-as-you-please era when rock was king. “Livin’ Alone” and “Lady” (with its Who-ish dynamics) are the highlights of the group originals. The group gleefully steamroll over Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” while changing gears completely for a refined remake of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” with a sensitive vocal from Appice that helped it become a minor hit. But soon, the restless Beck was packing up his white Stratocaster and moving on, and BBA would not complete a second studio LP, though a live album (originally released only in Japan) is now available on the Internet.

The Souther Hillman Furay Band

It wasn’t just the heavy rockers who were getting on the roll-call bandwagon when it came to assembling new “sure-thing” bands. SHF was the idea of David Geffen, who figured that the combo of singer-songwriter J.D. Souther and country-rock stalwarts Chris Hillman (a founding member of both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Bros.) and Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield, Poco) would make a great addition to his roster of artists at Asylum Records. With a supporting cast that included keyboardist Paul Harris, drummer Jim Gordon and pedal steel/dobro master Al Perkins, SHF got off to a promising start with the 1974 hit single “Fallin’ in Love” while the debut album hit #11, meaning there were quite a few copies mixed in with the Jackson Browne and Doobie Brother titles in the record racks of those so inclined. Though a pretty solid entry in that category, the group couldn’t overcome the personal disagreements natural in such inorganic assemblages. SHF did manage to squeeze out a second album in 1975 (Trouble in Paradise) but split up soon after.

Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit

A few months ago, I wrote about Paul Kossoff in the aforementioned “We’ve All Gone Solo” series as one of those deeply sad rock & roll fatalities, a talented and influential lead guitarist who was less than fully equipped to deal with the often callous vicissitudes of the music industry and band dynamics, never mind the wide availability of hard drugs. Free were hard rock pioneers but bad blood (esp. between singer Paul Rodgers and bassist-songwriter Andy Fraser) and Kossoff’s heroin use precipitated an initial break-up in 1972. Kossoff pulled himself together enough to lead up this band with Free drummer Simon Kirke, Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi (later Ronnie Lane’s replacement in the last line-up of the Faces) and future Who sideman John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keys and lead vocals. With its brooding bluesy sound, the KKTF album sometimes seems the lost bridge between Free and Bad Company, fans of either/both groups may find this a pleasant discovery if it flew under their radar first time around. It has many fine examples of Kossoff’s trademark sustain-filled soloing and Rabbit’s fluid keyboard work is a nice added dimension, even if his singing is merely competent when compared to Rodgers. But this was strictly a one-off and soon Free were having another go, though Kossoff’s continued addiction problem (among other factors) derailed that idea in ’73. Rodgers and Kirke soon saw the top of the mountain as half of Bad Co. while Kossoff died in 1976, his drug-damaged heart giving out on a flight from L.A. to New York.

Paice Ashton Lord

Hard rock heavyweights Deep Purple split up in 1976 after which two of their original members, drummer Ian Paice and keyboardist Jon Lord, teamed up with fellow Englishman Tony Ashton. The Blackburn-born Ashton was an accomplished pianist and singer and a bit of a gadfly, having done tons of session work, most notably for Family and John Entwistle. In 1971, he had had a big hit called “Resurrection Shuffle” with another group that sounded like an accounting firm—-Ashton, Gardner and Dyke. Paice, Ashton and Lord kept on with the sound of Ashton’s earlier group, blending in elements of R&B, jazz and rock with Ashton’s extroverted vocals on top. More of an enjoyable side project than an intended supergroup, they would only do the one album (with a live CD added years later). Jon Lord and PAL’s guitarist Bernie Marsden went on to form Whitesnake with singer David Coverdale (Paice was also in the band for a while) while Ashton was a bit out to dry. He re-invented himself in later years as a TV host and painter before dying in 2001. His two PAL bandmates went back to a re-formed Purple in 1984; Lord passed away in 2012.

McQuinn, Clark and Hillman

Let me take this time to give a shout-out to Chris Hillman, one of rock’s great utility players. Never a big star in his own right, he was nevertheless a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Bros. and Stephen Still’s Manassas. Good bands all, and of course in the first case, damn near legendary. Hillman, who was a steady hand at the bass guitar and mandolin as well as a sometime singer and songwriter, had already been down the great re-shuffle road with Souther, Hillman and Furay. In 1979 he agreed to join his more high-profile ex-bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark but he soon found out that while Byrds of a feather may flock together, they don’t always do so in flawless formation. The original line-up already had a brief, middling re-union in 1973 but MCH never even got off the ground artistically. These bona-fide folk musicians, who did so much to kick-start the great folk-rock movement in the mid-Sixties, almost totally abandon that here. Instead of trying to update that sound for a newer audience they settled for an glossy, soulless production style that was grounded in a no-man’s land somewhere between the Little River Band and Firefall (there’e even a semi-disco number). I bet Hillman and McGuinn likely would prefer to forget that debut nowadays, but for the talented but troubled Clark, this is a sadder case. He saw MCH as a boost to a post-Byrds career that never really gelled. But he overcame the production values he so disliked and cut what to my ears sounds like the band’s best song (“Won’t Let You Down”) on their second album though his continued substance abuse issues meant he lost equal billing (1980’s City merely “featured” Clark). It was likely these same drinking/drug problems that contributed to Clark’s premature death in 1991.

KBC Band

For such a group of disparate talents and personalities, Jefferson Airplane maintained their classic line-up from late 1966 to 1970, becoming one of America’s great psychedelic-era bands, augmenting the Aquarian platitudes of the day with tough-minded social and political lyrics. Starting in the early Seventies, the Airplane parts would splinter off into an uncountable number of solo projects, duos and reconfigurations. Of course, from 1974-78 the front line of vocalist-songwriters (Marty Balin, Paul Kanter and Grace Slick) led the evolution into Jefferson Starship and more widespread commercial success than they ever saw in the Sixties. Meanwhile, the band’s formidable guitar-bass pairing (Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady) had formed the blues-centric Hot Tuna. By the time of the late 70s, this deck of cards was getting re-shuffled with ever increasing frequency. With Balin’s departure, Starship had recruited the full-throated AOR belter Mickey Thomas and had scored a huge hit with the paint-by-numbers arena rocker “Jane” which was a long way away from the days of “White Rabbit.” In 1984 Kanter, with his idealism and sci-fi sensibilities out of fashion, was eased out of an organization he co-founded almost twenty years before. He soon re-teamed with Balin, the other co-founder in 1965, and added Jack Casady when Hot Tuna went on sabbatical. The group’s self-titled 1986 album turned out to be a solid, sometimes inspired affair that balanced romantic and political themes in a way that recalled the heyday of both the Airplane and Starship. Sure, the closely-miked drums and sax refrains are pure skinny-tie 80s. But Marty and Paul combined to pen two excellent topical numbers here: “Mariel” was inspired by revolutionary Nicaragua (Kanter had visited there with Kris Kristofferson) and the mini-epic “America” which not only did some soul-searching about the home country but also featured shout-outs to everything from the struggle against apartheid to West Germany’s Green Party. This anthem compared favorably to the Starship’s recent laugher “We Built This City” and though not a hit did get considerable FM airplay. As did “It’s Not You, It’s Not Me” which was one of several classy, grown-up romantic tunes by the Balin. But Marty was more reliable in his songwriting than he was in the area of band commitment. When he skipped out on a music video shoot to take an extended Hawaiian vacation, the group dissolved though all three would be on board for a brief Jefferson Airplane re-union some five years later.

GTR

OK, this is cheating a bit as GTR is not an acronym but an abbreviation for “guitar.” The two GTRs in this case are the lead guitarists from the classic lineups of two leading progressive rock bands, Steve Howe of Yes and Steve Hackett of Genesis. By 1986, when this band released their sole album, their old bands had adapted in the post-punk 80s, when the fantasy themes and 18-minute suites of classic prog had fallen from favor. Genesis had become a pop juggernaut when Phil Collins stepped out front after Peter Gabriel opted for a solo career and Yes had recently scored their only #1 single with the new-wavey “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Howe was also a charter member of Asia, the standard bearer of amalgamated post-prog, but GTR was clearly a bridge too far. There’s certainly some fine playing by the two formidable six-string masters but the LP is bogged down by material that is neither fish nor fowl. Slick arrangements and clichéd lyrics trump the occasional instrumental inspiration and the leisure-suit videos didn’t help any (see below). Howe quickly retreated back to alternating his time between Asia and Yes, while Hackett (who has been critical of the project in retrospect) moved on to his many thoughtful solo efforts, earning much respect from both older fans and the younger neo-prog crowd.

Emerson, Lake and Powell

Well, this sort of brings us full circle, as the original ELP(almer) was cited up top as one of those self-named bands that did hit the jackpot, a group emblematic of both prog’s majesty and self-indulgence. Years after that band had run its course, keyboard maestro Keith Emerson and bassist-singer Greg Lake were keen to have another go but by 1985 drummer Carl Palmer was employed as the stickman with (wait for it) Asia. All involved insist that it was mere coincidence that his replacement had the right surname initial to keep the famous acronym going. Cozy Powell was the valued journeyman drummer (Black Sabbath, Robert Plant, Rainbow etc.) who also had a #3 solo hit in England with the Hendrix-influenced instrumental “Dance With the Devil.” ELP2 (as they were sometimes called) was a bit of a return to form considering the later albums of the predecessor band (Love Beach anyone?) with a unified group attack that replaced the solo-spot indulgences of old. It yielded a moderate hit (“Touch and Go”) that added a heady synth hook from Keith to a streamlined 80s arrangement.

Elsewhere, ELP2 built on past success with the “Karn Evil 9” echoes of “The Score” and also included was a mighty classical adaption just like in the good old days-—Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War.” Despite reaching #23 on the U.S. charts, there would be no encore record. Like the work of many of the bands here, this project was a fleeting moment in the vast backlog of pop music. It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll, as they say, so when you need something a little off the beaten path after hearing the greatest hits once too often, it’s places like these where you can turn to appreciate as well the ambitions that came up a little short.

Copyright 2016–Rick Ouellette

We’ve All Gone Solo #15 (Paul Kossoff)

kossoff bsc

The lasting mystique of the late proto-heavy lead guitarist Paul Kossoff can be at least anecdotally explained by something I witnessed many years back. I was waiting for a train on the Green Line platform of Boston’s Government Center subway station. As a D Line trolley groaned its way around a tight curve into the station, I noticed a young guy with a guitar case and another in a jean jacket a few feet away. The three of us boarded by the same door without much room to move further in.

Then it starts. Jean Jacket asks the first guy what kind of guitar he has. A Gibson SG. “That’s the model that Pete Townshend played at Woodstock,” Jean Jacket says, a bit too loudly. JJ turns out to be one of those music fans with a nerd streak a mile wide: long on enthusiasm and short on reading social cues. For three stops and several long minutes, he regaled the polite guitar guy (and by extension, everyone else) with a variety of cross-cutting and volume-intensive opinions on a whole range of classic-rock guitar greats.

Sometimes these opinions canceled each other out (“Obviously, Eric Clapton is THE MAN, but Jeff Beck is the BEST guitarist the Yardbirds ever had”). He also engaged in a futile self-debate on the relative merits of Ritchie Blackmore vs. Jimmy Page and gushed about Ozzie Osbourne’s doomed axeman, Randy Rhoads.

Me and the rest of the passengers bonded in a group cringe. Finally, as the train whined its way into Arlington Street station where he would mercifully disembark, Jean Jacket says, “But my all-time favorite guitarist is—and I shouldn’t say this too loudly…”

An older man behind me piped up. “That hasn’t stopped you so far!” Jean Jacket, slightly abashed, looked around as if just noticing there were other people around. But it didn’t stop him from providing the answer: Tommy Bolin.

Pysche!! You thought he was going to say Paul Kossoff, am I right? Not to worry. The lead guitarist of Free was one of the names glowingly (if artlessly) mentioned. Looking back, JJ had summoned up a previously unrecognized “25 Club” of martyred hard rock guitarists as Kossoff, Rhoads and Bolin (who had played in the James Gang and Deep Purple) all died at that age. But it’s Kossoff who stands out both for his skill and his tragic story arc.

kossoff pub

Paul was born in 1950 in the Hampstead district of London, son of screen actor David Kossoff. His music-loving son caught the blues bug like many others back then and was something of a prodigy: at age 15 he helped start a band (Black Cat Bones) that would eventually be opening for Fleetwood Mac. But it was his second band, formed with BCB drummer Simon Kirke that really took off at made him a star by age 20. Together with singer Paul Rodgers and bassist Andy Fraser, the group Free was in the vanguard of the “heavy rock” sound, though they were lighter on their feet than most in the genre. The rhythm section was supple, making the bed for Rodgers’ distinctively gruff and masculine vocals. And almost every song would feature a notable guitar lead from Kossoff, not necessarily showy but full of dramatic sustain and bent notes that never failed to grab the listener’s attention. His style was very influential even among his older contemporaries and Clapton himself petitioned Paul to show him his vibrato technique.

When Free hit their stride on their third LP (Fire and Water) they were poised for the big time. They had a huge transatlantic hit (“All Right Now”) and in the UK were rapturously received by crowds at their dynamic live performances, including a slot at the 1970 Isle of Wight in front of 600,000. But as with so many groups, relations between group members were fraught, sometimes remarkably so. This was especially so between Rodgers and Fraser, who started out as writing partners and quickly progressed to bitter adversaries. Fraser boldly assumed most of the band decision making and it caused deep resentment with both Rodgers and Kossoff, the guitarist saying “in the studio I felt like a sound or a technique to be used—the guitar man rather than myself.” Moreover, Kossoff was one of those prototypical show-biz types who had large reserves of both talent and insecurity, exacerbated in an age when hard drugs were plentiful and there was little stigma attached to its use. Paul’s addiction problems soon became intractable. Free broke up in 1971, but Kossoff was sent into such a downward emotional spiral that the group reformed for his sake but could not regain their momentum and Kossoff’s dependence on heroin and Mandrax continued apace.

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Kossoff and Paul Rodgers, back when they were Free.

Of course, Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke would go on to form Bad Company. Kossoff did some session work for Jim Capaldi and others and issued his first solo album, Back Street Crawler, in 1973. Despite the health problems brought on by his drug dependency, this is a remarkably vital album in many ways and shows what could have been a great way forward for him. The opener “Tuesday Morning” starts out with a fairly standard blooze-rock riff and you sort of prepare for a gruff male vocal to kick in. But this is in fact a 17-minute extemporaneous instrumental and a surprisingly deft one at that. Backed by Yes drummer Alan White, bassist Trevor Burton, and keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick, the jam runs through several intriguing sections, early on developing as a Allman Brothers-style up-tempo vamp where the leader dishes out stinging guitar runs over a jazzy rhythm. At about the 5:30 mark it downshifts and a ruminative guitar figure laps with Rabbit’s circular piano fills. Soon the quartet is back on the high rockin’ plateau until at about 13:40 there is a dissolve into churchy organ and a slow beat that is a soft cushio for some lyrical Kossoff leads and an almost prog rock feel, the same goes for the drifting coda.

For those who still have attention spans, this is heady stuff. And maybe a promising career direction. As soulful and expressive a vocalist as Paul Rodgers was, there was already an established lyrical conceit among such bands that was all about proprietary males and “devil’s daughter” stereotypical women. Kossoff was communicating much more on his Les Paul and this carried thru onto side two with a great instrumental guitar duet with John Martyn called “Time Away.” When the original Free line-up appeared for one song, Rodgers sang the Kossoff-penned “Molten Gold,” foreshadowing some of Bad Company’s more sensitized material like “Seagull” and “Silver, Blue and Gold.”

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Man, Guitar, Amp. If only it were that easy.

But while B.C. soared to superstardom, Kossoff languished and remained in poor physical and mental shape. Back Street Crawler became a band name and he would record two albums with them, the second one in 1976. That would be the same year where, on March 19, Paul Kossoff died of the dreaded drug-induced heart failure while on a flight from L.A. to New York. Soon after, his father David started a foundation in his son’s named to educate children about the dangers of drug addiction and he even developed a one-man stage show about Paul’s death and the effect it had on his loved ones. Today, in appreciation of his talents and that certain lingering sadness for a person who helped fill your life with great music then died young, Kossoff’s name and music lives on in the Internet age. In fact, you don’t have to scroll too far down below one of his posted songs before someone will invariably say “best guitarist ever.” Agree or disagree, but it’s better than having it declared to you on a crowded subway car from a kid whose voice is cranked up to 11.

We’ve All Gone Solo #14 (Spooner Oldham)

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Dewey Lindon “Spooner” Oldham may have been born in Center Star, Alabama but the name of his hometown does not indicate the nature of his otherwise successful musical career. A studio session keyboardist, songwriter and sideman par excellence, Spooner’s unassuming, personable and adaptable instincts have stood him in good stead when playing alongside those destined to be more famous. Established as an organist in the house band at the world-renowned FAME studios in Muscle Shoals while barely in his twenties, he would play and/or write songs for the likes of Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops and the Everly Brothers. Starting in the Seventies, he branched out as a collaborator and live sideman with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Dickie Betts etc. and right up to now with peeps like Cat Power and alt-Southern rockers the Drive-by Truckers.

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Look out, Spooner, Mr. Pickett is sneaking up on y’all

“Luckily, I was born with a creative mind,” Oldham told Uncut magazine in its Dec. 2015 issue, admitting he dislikes to practice. Instead, he relies on an uncanny ability to come up quick with just the right touch to add to whatever song is being cut. That could be the excitable glissando at the end of each verse of Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” or the stately church-like organ on Percy Sledge’s classic romance sermon “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Also luckily for Oldham, he found early on a compatible writing partner in fellow Alabaman Dan Penn. They went on to pen a follow-up smash for Sledge (“It Tears Me Up”) as well as a number of other hits, notably the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” and “I’m Your Puppet” for the Florida cousin duo James and Bobby Purify.

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With chops like these, no one would begrudge Spooner trying to steal some more of the spotlight for himself. In fact, as early as 1965 he had cut a 45 credited to Spooner and the Spoons. By 1972, he had moved to L.A. and was part of another studio house band, when a brief break in an otherwise busy recording slate led to his solo album, Pot Luck. This is an LP that played to his strengths in two ways: Side One is an admirable collection of original material and Side Two is dominated by an extended (mostly) instrumental medley that re-works many of the classic tunes he played on in the previous decade. The first side originals like “Julie Brown’s Forest,” “Easy Listening” and “The Lord Loves a Rolling Stone” are sterling examples of how deeply Spooner has absorbed the essence of classic Southern soul, adding in a taste of the Band in their more reflective moments. As it turned out, this fine album was recorded for a small label that went bust soon after, making it a rare collector’s item, though it was recently released on CD.

Oldham, who tellingly admitted in the Uncut interview that he was uncomfortable as the main attraction, went back to doing what came natural. When the demand for in-house studio bands waned later in the 70s, he started hitting the road as sought-after sideman, a notable early example of this was as Bob Dylan’s keyboardist during Zimmy’s mixed-reaction tour during his period as an evangelical convert. His rich legacy as a key part of the Muscle Shoals sound kept his name known to newer generations of astute musicians. Drive-by Truckers’ frontman Patterson Hood, son of FAME studio bassist David Hood, took up Oldham’s offer of help, tendered when Patterson was first starting out in high school bands, and Spooner ended playing both on the band’s stalwart 2008 album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark and its ensuing tour. And that the way’s you feel it will always be with Oldham, now 72. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a year later, reading from two pages of thrice-folded note paper, there was typically no attention drawn to himself, only gratitude for what he was able to contribute to some of the best popular music of a golden era, and a typically modest declaration to keep on making great music in the finest spirit of collaboration.

We’ve All Gone Solo #13 (Chris Squire)

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Yes in the early 70s was the very embodiment of progressive rock’s heyday. Taking the stage while the majestic finale of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” poured out through the PA system, they had the whole package: the capes, the dry ice, the keyboard arsenal and, of course, the ten and fifteen minute songs full of second-wave Aquarian mysticism backed by bravura musicianship. They could fill arenas and sell albums by the bushel in Europe, North America and down under, have their praises sung in Rolling Stone (the Fragile album was lauded as “a powerful and moving emotional experience”) and even have a hit single or two like “Roundabout” and “All Good People.” Of course, the backlash would hit soon enough. There were legions of critics who seemed to decide all at once that they would forfeit whatever street cred they possessed if they got caught liking anything without a blues-based framework and hence blackballed most prog rock as sterile or pretentious. A lot of Yes fans remained though and so did the band, adapting to shifts in musical culture and countless line-up changes. Sometime in the 1990s it became safe to go back to being themselves, now as a “legacy act.” Not that that stopped the revolving-door personnel shifts.

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The one constant in the Yes lineup from their debut record in 1969 until his death in June of 2015 was bassist Chris Squire. The London-born Squire also sang back-up and co-wrote a lot of the band’s material. But what he’ll be remembered for is his work on the signature Rickenbacker 4001 four-string, an influential player who was prominent in the band’s instrumental scheme of things. No longer would the bass guitarist have to be relegated to the back of the stage aside the drummer. His style was melodic and fluid but formidable, the Rickenbacker sound was somehow both trebly and thunderous, as he made clever use of his instrument’s two pickups. In the classic heyday configuration, with vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Rick Wakeman and either Bill Bruford or Alan White on drums, Squire stood as tall as anyone in a role often viewed as negligible, a central figure in an Olympian instrumental framework.

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Chris takes a quick look at the keyboard encampment to make sure he and Rick Wakeman are not wearing the same cape.

But who was Chris Squire anyway? With a few notable exceptions (Peter Gabriel in the original Genesis, for one) progressive rock was not really known for single predominant personalities; they were more like amped-up chamber ensembles. Chris always seemed accommodating and thoughtful in interviews; a writer for the defunct Rock magazine in 1972 jump-started a discussion by telling Squire he had recently heard the single “Grounded” by his earlier band, the paisley-pop combo called the Syn. He was amused and maybe a little abashed, after all his new band was now writing rock songs in sonata form, but came across as the most amiable of the Yes men. There wasn’t exactly a lot of dirty laundry to hang on the line with this crew: for a while there Wakeman was the only imbibing and meat-eating member and Jon Anderson was well known for writing epic verse about missing his wife while on tour—check out side four of Tales from Topographic Oceans if you need a reference on that.

It was really was all about the music and for Chris this included his solo showcase “The Fish,” which was also the nickname of this Pisces. When it first appeared on Fragile (where each member took a brief solo turn) this piece was an instrumental add-on to “Long-Distance Runaround” and demurely bowed out after 150 seconds. But on the triple live album Yessongs it becomes a volcanic ten-minute powerhouse jam, the other four members popping in and out with accompaniment while Chris, fingers flying over the fretboard and egged on by the decibel-crazed punters at London’s Rainbow Theatre, builds it up to a roof-raising conclusion. They don’t make ‘em like this no more no how.

Squire’s 1975 solo album Fish out of Water came during a brief band hiatus after the release of the Relayer album, where Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz had temporarily replaced Wakeman after a falling out over the envelope-pushing Topographic Oceans. Squire assembled a neat little studio group of Moraz, Bruford, ex-King Crimson man Mel Collins on sax and Caravan’s Jimmy Hastings on flute. An orchestra was part of the picture but used sparingly and along with his foregrounded bass, Squire sprinkled in some lead guitar. It’s a glossy and attractive piece of work that dispenses with the clattering tendencies of his regular band and dials down the pseudo-philosophizing while retaining the same general presentation. Squire began his musical days in a school choir and has a similar (if slightly lower) voice to Jon Anderson’s, so the vocal element (often a drawback in the solo work of non-frontmen) is fine. The first two songs, “Hold Out Your Hand” and “You By My Side” have romantic lyrics and sprightly, almost danceable rhythms, and seem to point the way to Yes’ more radio-friendly turn in the early 80s, when they had their sole #1 hit with ”Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

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But all that could wait. This is still the mid-70s, bro, and when you staked your claim you did it in songs that went double digit in minutes. There are two here: the questing “Silently Falling” which clocks in at 11:26 and features a long, brooding and elegant outro and the 15-minute closer “Safe (Canon Song)” which has delightful hints of Gershwin in its orchestration and whose bass-driven arrangement ends in stately fashion. Though well-loved by Yes fans, this album lived up to its title as Squire quickly dove back into the Yes stream, a rock-solid band guy to the last. He would only have one more official solo release, a 2007 Christmas album. When I saw Yes two summers back it was on one of their last American swings with the one guy left to stretch back all the way to the starting line: in this umpteenth line-up you had Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White but the estranged Jon Anderson was replaced by a young singer (Jon Davison) and the keyboards were handled by ex-Buggle Geoff Downes, who had had a cup of coffee with Yes in 1979. No matter: even with progressive rock forever remaining the ill-regarded stepchild in critical circles (which has helped keep this greatly successful group out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) it was no issue to the enthusiastic and generationally-mixed crowd in the outdoor venue. This included many twenty-somethings who were bouncing in the aisles during the exalted finale of “Starship Trooper,” with Squire holding down the center one more time before being called to “shine your wings forward to the sun.”


Classic Yes, live at the Rainbow Theatre December 1972. (From the 1973 “Yessongs” film).

We’ve All Gone Solo #11 (Danny Kirwan)

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To millions of music fans, Fleetwood Mac means Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, along with the founding rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie and recently rejoined singer-keyboardist Christine McVie. It’s not hard to see why. They were the most commercially successful incarnation of the band (remember a little record called Rumours?) and for the last forty years, the only incarnation. But before rock music’s timeline became so stretched out, there were of course two earlier stages of the band. The psychedelic blues combo fronted by guitar legend Peter Green and, after Green left in 1970, a transitional period in the early Seventies that saw the addition of Christine and, for a while, Bob Welch. Straddling those two periods was Danny Kirwan, who was born in South London in 1950 and joined Mac as an 18 year-old guitar prodigy in ’68. By the time he left in 1972, Kirwan was the de facto leader of the band, but was let go amid tales of alcohol abuse and erratic behavior.

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Someone like Kirwan, who developed mental health issues and was out of the music business by the late 70s, is an easily forgotten by the average pop fan. But for the passionate baby-boomer music buff, who have big record collections and read legacy rock magazines like Mojo and Uncut, a guy like Danny is often revered beyond what would normally be expected. And that’s how it should be. With the earlier version of FM, he was part of a formidable three-guitar formation (the third axe played by Jeremy Spencer) who carved out indelible rock classics like “Oh Well,” “Albatross,” “The Green Manalishi” and “Black Magic Woman.” In the post-Green years, the band developed a more ethereal and at times folk-rockish sound and, with the addition of Christine McVie, developed a feminine mystique that would that would really broaden their appeal a few years down the road.

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With a front line of Kirwan, C. McVie and Welch, the group made two excellent albums (1971’s Future Games and 72’s Bare Trees) that certainly set the table for that mega-success to come. Kirwan had a hand in composing about half the material on those records and his maturing writing style on songs like “Woman of 1000 Years” and “Dust” was central to their aesthetic appeal. But like a lot of the people I’ve profiled in this series, Kirwan’s step up from role player to nominal leader didn’t seem a good fit. There were stories of it being a stressful arrangement and Kirwan’s developed a serious drinking problem, leading to bad behavior which alienated him from band members. In the end, Mick Fleetwood was the only one he was still on speaking terms with, if only to let the guitarist know he was out of the band.

Kirwan’s first solo album wasn’t released until 1975, when his Second Chapter came out around the same as Fleetwod Mac, the curiously eponymous LP that was the first to feature the Buckingham-Nicks team. In some ways, Kirwan’s offering was a continuation of his more low-key offerings with his former outfit: thoughtful, melodic, attractively folkish if a tad under-produced. “Ram Jam City” is a sprightly uptempo number to kick things off, but not nearly as driving as its tittle may suggest. The rest of the old side one is an enjoyable set of songs analogous to Nilsson or early 70s Paul McCartney. It’s on the second half that the record deepens and Kirwan’s engaging voice and nimble guitar work are put to best use on songs like “Lovely Days” and “Silver Streams.” An air of melancholy like a premonition has already edged in by the time we get to the beautiful closer “Cascades.”

Danny Kirwan’s second chapter would be an abbreviated one. There would be a few more undervalued solo LPs to follow, while his old band, mining a similar musical vein but with more of that ineffable “It Factor” went mega-platinum. Many have said that if Kirwan’s issues could have been worked out, that his talents would have contributed greatly to the Buckingham-Nicks lineup, even if it would have been a crowded stage. But the vicissitudes of a pop musician’s life are many and often fall unkindly on the more deserving. Kirwan would spend part of the 80s and 90s homeless in London, occasionally being shadowed by tabloid reporters who on at least one occasion made fun of his alcoholism in a news story. Things may have improved some since then but tentative talks about a one-off reunion of early edition Fleetwood Mac (with Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer who, despite life problems of their own, are musically active) don’t hold out much hope that Kirwan can be included. Never say never, but in the meantime, astute and sensitive fans still have Second Chapter as a great Sunday morning listen while wondering what could have been.

We’ve All Gone Solo #10 (Jerry Harrison)

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There must be plenty of people out there who dig the Talking Heads who couldn’t tell you the first thing about Jerry Harrison, except that he was the handsome, curly-haired guy who switched off between guitar and keyboards. But that’s OK. Harrison is the music equivalent of a versatile utility baseball player who could play any infield position and maybe even fill in at catcher. He comes off the bench to hit a 2-run double during a World Series that his team wins, and is forever fondly recalled by hometown fans. And so it is sometimes with rock ‘n’ roll.

Jerry Harrison was born in Milwaukee in 1949 and moved to the Boston area to study architecture at Harvard. There he met Danny Fields and the journalist and future punk impresario introduced him to Jonathan Richman. He joined Richman’s group the Modern Lovers in 1971 and played keys on their seminal debut album (recorded the next year but not released until ’76). After Jonathan turned to a quieter and more naïve performing style, Jerry left but the legacy of that first record—with its streetwise but brainy aesthetic—was not lost on the groups in the emerging New York scene centered around CBGBs. When the Talking Heads, then a trio with singer-guitarist David Byrne and the husband-wife rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, were looking for a fourth member to fill out their sound, Harrison was recommended to them by mutual acquaintance Andy Paley.

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He went to New York to meet the band and audition and they were impressed with his versatility. Harrison, in a move sure to be appreciated by parents everywhere, agreed to join the group so long as he could finish his last semester at Harvard. The Heads’ success, with Harrison as the group’s valuable middle man, is well known. But when tensions between dominant frontman Byrne and the Weymouth-Frantz axis came to a head in the late 80s, the group went on a long-term hiatus, before officially breaking up in 1991. Harrison didn’t waste much time getting in the solo game, releasing “Casual Gods” in 1988, the same year as the Heads’ last studio album. Jerry had also put out a solo disc in 1981 (“The Red and the Black”) but with the band’s future in doubt, this perhaps was made with more of a sense of urgency to it.
From the opener “Rev it Up” you get the sense of a consummate pro at work. Led by Harrison’s signature trebly, funky rhythm guitar, the song is a suave booty-shaker that is not dissimilar to his old band in the “Stop Making Sense” period.

Certainly, the overall sound, with the glossy production values and world-music overlay, is of its time but in a good way. Harrison has a nice mid-range voice even if he is not the most expressive of vocalists. And while as a lyricist he is not as willfully eccentric as David Byrne (few are) he can be just as striking upon closer inspection (“I feel there’s a time coming when we are all angels… a time when nothing will be new”). The standout track of “Casual Gods” has got to be “Man With a Gun” an ineffably touching tune about the mysteries of love that also comes with a stylish video.

“Casual Gods” was an impressive album (even if it did get a little samey towards the end of side two) and seemed to promise that there would be more to come. There was a follow-up album a couple of years later (“Walk on Water”) but that was his last solo effort to date. As is the case with many of the musicians profiled in this series, some people are just born to supporting roles. While watching the “Stop Making Sense” concert film, for instance, it’s a little hard to imagine a low-key dude like Jerry Harrison climbing into that giant white suit to claim the spotlight like David Byrne does so memorably. We all have our roles to play and for Jerry it would mostly be as producer or in-house player, working with the Violent Femmes, General Public, Crash Test Dummies, the BoDeans, Black 47 and many others. And say what you will about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, at least it gets warring bands back together one more time and for the Talking Heads it happened in 2002, with Jerry looking just as boyish as ever.

(The anecdote about Harrison joining the Talking Heads was taken from Will Hermes’ great book “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” which takes its title from the Heads’ first single (before J.H. was in the group). More on that tome in my upcoming post “Books That Rock, Part 2.” Coming soon!)

We’ve All Gone Solo #9 (Mick Ronson)

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The curious case of Mick Ronson is a great example of why I like doing this series so much. Rock fans can be a sentimental lot and Ronson, who came to prominence as David Bowie’s right-hand man in the heady days of Ziggy Stardust, is still greatly admired long after his untimely death in 1993 at age 46. A classically-trained musician from the craggy port city of Hull, England, Ronson did not find much success in London with his late 60s rock outfit called The Rats. He eventually left the capital, not knowing he had recently attracted the attention of Bowie. Although he had had a hit with “Space Oddity” (considered a bit of a novelty record at the time), Bowie harbored plans to achieve pop immortality via some transformative concept.

As the story goes, one of Mick’s ex-drummers found the guitarist back up in Hull, marking out the end lines on a rugby field, part of his job in the city’s parks dept. Convinced to give London another try, Ronson got the gig as Bowie’s guitarist on the two albums (The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory) leading up to the world-beating The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. By the time of Bowie’s alter-ego masterstroke, Ronson was more than just the flashy lead guitarist in the singer’s gender-bender, sci-fi alternate universe. Ronno, as he was now known, was a principal player in the album’s cinematic sweep, as arranger and keyboardist in addition to his incandescent guitar work—not to mention his role as Bowie’s onstage foil when the Ziggy show went on the road.

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Obliged to dress in the glittery style of the leader, as did drummer Woody Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder, those were special times for Ronson as the top Spider. But as revolutionary as the look and sound was, pointing the way to both the punk era and the image-conscious 80s pop, Bowie was not a guy to stay in one bag for very long. Though Ronson was still an integral part of the Ziggy follow-up Aladdin Sane and the covers album Pinups, he was soon out of the silver suit and would only play with David on a couple of occasions after that.

His first solo LP, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, arrived soon after in Feb. of 1974 and made #9 on the UK charts. This is an album that still gets a lot of love, sometimes to a strange degree. On the extreme fringe, one online true believer, states that Tenth Avenue is the greatest rock music ever produced, with the exception of Jimi Hendrix. Really, even better than Ziggy Stardust? This is obviously the work of a very talented musician but it also gives every indication of being a toe-dipper in the solo-artist waters. Mick makes a very debatable decision opening the record with a version of “Love Me Tender.” Starting off with a soft-serve Elvis cover does not exactly indicate a forward charge up to the rock ‘n’ roll Acropolis. Elsewhere, there are three tunes that David Bowie had a hand in writing, all well sung and played by Ronson in the moonage-daydream style of recent vintage. (The best of the three, “Growing Up and I’m Fine,” is heard above). Most intriguing is the title cut as Ronno delivers a sterling rockist rendition of a Richard Rogers dance piece he loved since the days of his youthful music lessons—the cabaret-style piano and the long line of dramatic sustained guitar notes does justify the hype of the man’s eager-beaver followers.

Like a lot of the folks featured in the series, Ronson found his greatest market value in a support role or behind the scenes. In between this album and his solo follow-up (Play Don’t Worry, #29 UK) he was in the final line-up of Mott the Hoople. Ronson would go on to form a partnership with Mott frontman Ian Hunter that would last for several albums and tours. Later he would appear with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue while producing and/or playing on records from a diverse list of artists that included Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Ellen Foley, the Rich Kids, T-Bone Burnett, Morrissey and even David Cassidy. In 1992, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, he appeared at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert where he was re-united with both Bowie and Hunter. Despite never being as famous as those he helped support (or partly because of it), the secondary spotlight shining on Ronson still burns plenty bright.


Today, “Top of the Pops,” Tomorrow the World!

Transistor Heaven III: School’s Out Completely

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Alice Cooper’s intransigent anthem was of course well-timed with its release date coming in the late spring of 1972. Zipping up twelve spaces this week some 43 long-ass years ago, it signaled the “blessed” end to eight years of parochial school. After a white-sky summer where I suddenly turned agnostic, September would lead me gratefully into the rebel-held territory of public-school hallways. On the last day at St. John’s I imagined myself poised to push the bar on the exit door, calling out over my shoulder to any nun within earshot: “If that don’t suit ya, that’s a drag!”

I was still collecting the WMEX weekly surveys at the record dept. of my local Lechmere (the Massachusetts pre-equivalent of Best Buy), another music-mad kid like so many others at the time. My collection of these brightly-colored snapshots of pop history that survived as one of the few remaining physical items from boyhood (and unlost through a dozen moves as an adult) would drop off as summer waned. I’m not sure if they stopped printing them or if I was putting aside childish things. At the very least, there was an inkling of the young adulthood to come. Several of the songs on this Top 30 I always relate to the events of the 4th of July on Juniper Point where friends of my parents were throwing a BBQ. That part of Salem Neck was mostly residents by then but still held vestiges of its summer colony identity. We, meaning us younger kids, quickly caught on to the news that this was a “hippie house” a couple of blocks away.

There was this narrow walkway between two tall houses and an open door leading out to it. A little child in our group half wanders into it. A fortyish guy in a bathing suit is coming up the other way. “Don’t let her go in there, she’ll never come out the same way.” Cool. We’ve already heard the reports of emanating marijuana smoke. The walkway leads to a large rocky outcropping from which you could take a dip in the “refreshing” waters of this Atlantic inlet. Straights and freaks and kids all congregate there in the late afternoon sun and someone brings out a radio. It was playing my beloved WMEX, still cool enough (as a “progressive” AM station) for the twentysomethings and plenty hip for the young teens. “Layla” plays, as does David Bowie’s “Starman” and we bob our heads, the kids and the bearded guys sitting next to girlfriends with silky middle-parted hair, as straight and long as yardsticks. When the ballad “I Need You” plays, one dude says to his buddy, “Oh yeah, man. I saw America play in upstate New York last year so when the album came out I got it right away.” The independent rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle beckons, I felt like I already had one foot in the door.

“It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now” Cornelius Bros. and Sister Rose. Swooshing into the #1 spot on a cushion of silky strings, the second (and last) big pop hit for the soulful family-act from south Florida. Like their first (“Treat Her Like a Lady”) this had the close harmonies and the good-advice lyrics but also a sweet mid-tempo grooves that always associates positively with the early 70s. “Nice to Be With You” Gallery. By contrast, songs like this by Detroit soft-rockers Gallery would one day be representative of the type earning the second-hand scorn of later generations, associating the age with the Brady Bunch and sidewalk-sweeping bell bottoms. But with its era-typical unpretentious optimism (and delightful pedal steel solo) we knew what we liked. May it ever be thus. “Sylvia’s Mother” Dr. Hook. Before their successful gambit to get on the “Cover of the Rolling Stone”, the Hooksters had a pretty decent hit with this melodramatic payphone ballad about some unlucky guy who just wants to say farewell to his former girlfriend who’s marrying some “fella down Galveston way” but he can’t get past her ball-busting mom. A little overwrought maybe, but us old-timers from the pre-cellular age know the particular agony of that “forty cents more for the next three minutes” refrain. “Conquistador” Procol Harum. The only other Top 40 hit for the “Whiter Shade of Pale” band. When PH did this re-engineered version live with an orchestra, only vocalist-pianist Gary Brooker and drummer BJ Wilson remained from the 1967 studio original. “Hold Your Head Up” Argent. Another proggy song to round out the top five, ex-Zombie Rod Argent found he could really stretch out on the keyboards in this day and age, though MEX were likely playing the single edit.

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“Candy Man” Sammi Davis, Jr. The Revenge of the Rat Pack? Those crazy rock ‘n’ roll sounds had been dominating the charts for almost a decade now, but Rat Packer Sammi was representing the old guard with this “Willy Wonka” teeth-grinder. At first reluctant to do the song, Davis had a change of heart when it revived his career (#1 Billboard) and after that sang the sickly-sweet lyrics with grateful gusto. “School’s Out” Alice Cooper. Now quickly back to the rock ‘n’ roll. “Brandy” Looking Glass. Eternal one-hit-wonder (over 10 million hits on YouTube), it seems the world will never tire of this finely-crafted tune with its slightly archaic lyric of a dishy barmaid pining away for some sailor dude whose real “love and lady is the sea.” His loss. “Where is the Love” Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway. The Marvin & Tami of the 70s? This velvety duet also has had major staying power in compilations, soundtracks and a re-tooled version by the Black-Eyed Peas. “How Do You Do” Mouth & MacNeal. OK, sometimes the Seventies did stink. Exhibit A, this insidious earworm foisted on the world by the zany Dutch duo whose legend lasted a lunchtime, just like the Rutles. “Oh Girl” the Chi-Lites. More smooth soul, this time for the Chicago vocal group that had been together in some form since the late Fifties. Their long-deserved first national #1 followed the even more brokenhearted “Have You Seen Her” which hit #3 late in 1971.

“In a Broken Dream” Python Lee Jackson. A real anomaly of a hit, this Aussie rock band had re-located to the UK in the late 60s and used a still relatively-unknown singer named Rod Stewart for three lead vocals. But these did not see wide release until three years later when this powerful number was sent out to compete head-to-head with Rod’s own “You Wear it Well.” Not sure why classic rock radio stations don’t trot this out more often. “Layla” Derek and the Dominos. Well, this one has no problem staying in classic rock rotations. “Day by Day” Godspell cast. Thanks to the good folks at St. John’s, I had my first live theater experience in spring of ’72, and the original cast LP dominated our Music Appreciation class. As to the continued cultural revelance of “Day by Day,” please refer to the first “Meet the Parents” movie. “Song Sung Blue” Neil Diamond. “Song sung blue/everybody knows one”? For proof of that, Meet The Parents again.

“I Need You” America. Oh yeah, maann. “Take it Easy” the Eagles. I better plan that rock ‘n’ roll field trip to Winslow, Arizona. After all, I’m not getting any younger. “We’re on Our Way” Chris Hodge. Mr. Hodge was a bit of a protégé of Ringo Starr (they shared a common interest in UFO theories) and released two decent pseudo-glam singles on Apple before returning to obscurity (in a flying saucer?). “Lean on Me” Bill Withers. Wait, there are two songs at #18? This evergreen soul hymn to abiding friendship will remain a strong reminder of an age when such sentiments were still valid for lyric ideas. It also didn’t hurt that royalties earned here allowed early-retiree Bill to enjoy a future relaxing at home and watching “Judge Judy” as he let us know at his recent Hall of Fame induction. “Small Beginning” Flash. Another great proggy hit, this time by a Yes spin-off band with their original guitarist Peter banks as leader.

“I Can Feel You. The Addrisi Brothers. When is someone going to make an Addrisi Brothers biopic? OK, they weren’t that famous, probably best remembered for writing the smash “Never My Love” for the Association, which would become one of the most valuable song copyrights ever with over 300 cover versions. But they were born in Winthrop, Mass. where the jets fly right over the house on their way to/from the adjacent Logan Airport (making for a great opening scene) and their family were trapeze artists for f**k’s sake. But brothers Don and Dick were musical naturals and were helped into the business by Lenny Bruce. I know, right? With groovy songs sporting titles like “I Can Feel You” and “We’ve Got to Get it on Again” I see a “Boogie Nights” vibe when we get to the Seventies. Unfortunately, their career as a vocal duo was cut short when Dick died at age 45 in 1984. Fade to black.

“Alone Again, Naturally” Gilbert O’Sullivan. The impish Irishman, whose sub-Peter Noone warblings delighted and dismayed radio listeners the world over, debuted this week at #21 with this suicide-contemplation anthem that would go on to be #1 both on WMEX and nationwide. I was never sure what the countdown meant when it said PICK in the “weeks on list” column. In this case, it might have meant that Gilbert couldn’t decide whether to PICK jumping off a building or drinking poison. “If I Were a Carpenter” Bob Seger. By 1972 you might think that this standard was a bit played out. Yet this soulful version by the future “Night Moves” man is one of the better versions I’ve heard. “War Song” Neil Young & Graham Nash. This anti-Nixon screed, credited to “Young & Mash” by the mistake-prone employee who typed up these surveys, was said to have been timed to give a boost to George McGovern’s campaign just ahead of the Democratic convention. A lost cause but a cool lost single from Neil’s discography. “Daddy Don’t Walk So Fast” Wayne Newton. Yeah, Dad. Don’t walk so fast or you may rush by a washed-up lounge singer without recognizing him. “Tramp” Sugar Bus. I don’t recall this one and the combination of those three words has proven to be Google-proof. Can anything in this day and age really remain a mystery? If anyone knows this song, please comment below.

“Starman” David Bowie. Not the first thing I had heard from D.B. as there had been “Changes” and “Space Oddity” but when my cross-the-way buddy got the Ziggy Stardust album it was a whole new ballgame, led by this single which was not just an earworm, but a mindworm as well. “I’m Comin’ Home” the Stories. If all one knows by them is “Brother Louie” than a little deep-diving is in order. Great tune. “Sealed With a Kiss” Bobby Vinton. Dang, this is a sweet-sounding classic but it sounds like it was made ten years before, and may even be a re-release. At any rate, the Old Guard wasn’t giving up easy and that’s OK. “Cat’s Eye in the Window” Tommy James. Well, this one is not a classic, but still has that trademark T.J. sound. It might be the era when he was sneaking in Christian themes but damned if I can tell. “Troglodyte” Jimmy Castor Bunch. It’s the last song on the survey and the last typo. This knuckle-dragging funk workout by Jimmy “Castpr” should be high up in an imagined book called “1001 Novelty Songs You Must Hear before You Die.” Especially so considering that this has apparently been much sampled in dance clubs and hip-hop parties thru the years. Evidence enough of the future and past push-pull of these great surveys at such a fertile time in pop history.

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And naturally there was a lot more to come that summer by looking at the “1st on 1510” section, with new entries on the way by The Who, Tower of Power, Stevie Wonder—as well as the immortal “Motorcycle Mama” by Sailcat. The Top 15 Albums? Well, about half of them I would put down as Rock all-timers, starting with “Exile on Main Street” in the #1 spot. By I’m also glad to see the “Godspell” cast album hanging tough at #12. I wouldn’t want to burn my bridges that quickly.

By the spring of ‘73, I’d have my own stash and an almost girlfriend and the times of the first countdown in this 3-part series (summer of ’71) were starting to seem far off. City life and punk rock was only five years away, and a whole other zeitgeist to replace these halcyon days—then many years after that, my own family and the inexorable creep back to the suburbs. But through it all, I always owned a transistor radio and they went with me as far afield as Europe on two occasions. There were five Replacement songs in a row as I got ready to go out and see them at the Paradiso in Amsterdam and the Pogues’ “Sally MacLennane” played in my room after hitting the pubs in Dublin. Nowadays I own two—when I heard that Radio Shack was in trouble I got a spare just in case. Happy listening in all the days ahead.

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