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Category: 1970s

143: Me and Bobby McGee

Since I was a young adult, I’ve liked listening to Janis Joplin. That bluesy rasp she always had going on really underlined her overall sound. And like so many others my age, I devoured her biography Buried Alive. One of the things that struck me then was the way so many of the people from her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, thought she’d ruined her voice because she’d sounded sweeter and purer as a teenager. Of course, they also bullied the hell out of her because she had an artistic mindset and she wasn’t a racist at heart. (She did drop the N-bomb from time to time because it was originally the only word she had in her vocabulary for Black people.)

The other thing that struck me was that in all of her photos she seemed like kind of a mess. Her hair was everywhere. She wore a million beaded necklaces. She had the baggy, shapeless clothes on. In short, she looked kind of scuzzy and while it kind of matched her sound, it belied the emotion behind her delivery. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I saw a black-and-white nude she’d done in 1967, that I was able to see her differently.

Kubernik: The 2020 Legacy of Janis Joplin

In that image, taken by Bob Seidemann but not released until after her death, her hair is a little more under control. She’s still wearing lots of necklaces, but now they’re nearly her only defense against the camera’s eye. She’s got some curves going on that you never suspected were there. But her face…her face is an expression of vulnerability, maybe even fright. You can see it in the cropped closeup to the right which I’m pretty sure is from the same session. Janis was always artistically naked on the stage, but now she was giving us a literal nakedness that allowed the young woman behind the bawdy broad to shine through.

And I think that might be at the heart of her rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee.” Janis was able to channel more of a bittersweet sound than her usual Kozmic Blues thing, and then when the band opens up toward the end of the record, she’s just along for the ride.

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141: Fire and Rain

James Taylor was a talented guy, but early in his career he was having a tough time getting a break. Even when the Beatles signed him to their label, it was at a time that the label was coming unraveled and promotion was scarce. Plus, Taylor had his own issues to deal with.

It took some time but he managed to get his act together, get himself cleaned up and get some talented people to work with him on his second album, which fortunately wasn’t on Apple Records. With some support from Warner Brothers, Sweet Baby James became a hit album, and “Fire and Rain” became a breakout his for Taylor.

“Fire and Rain” is one of those songs that seems to have a lot of weird theories surrounding its subject matter, and the best I can tell you is that most of them are close, but not close enough to be considered correct. But the real stories attached to the song are more compelling, if not quite as exciting.

As I promised during the show, here’s a sample of the old Smokey Stover comic strip that I referred to:

For my money, some of that art suggests that Bill Holman was a big influence on the MAD Magazine crew. It’s also likely that Holman himself was influenced by George McManus, the artist behind “Bringing Up Father.”

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140: Cars

When I was in high school, there was a guy I knew named Phil. Phil and I shared an art class, a class I had to be talked into attending because I’d had a bad experience with an art class in the eighth grade. But I was told that the teacher was really good and kind of a cool guy, and sure enough he was.

Mr. L, our art teacher, let us bring in our own music to listen to while we worked. So one fine day in the spring of 1980, Phil brings in a bunch of 45 records, and one of them was this song.

“Cars” was the kind of tune that, at the time, was unlike anything I’d heard before, and I was both fascinated and hooked. The first opportunity I had, I went out and got my own copy of the record (I wasn’t very album-focused yet), and played that record hard.

Numan didn’t see a whole lot more action in the United States after that, probably because New Wave came along and nudged him out of the way, but I don’t think I’ll forget the impact of hearing that record for the first time, even on that crummy, bulky, big brown nearly-portable record player that so many schools used.

In retrospect, it occurred to me that you kind of have to see the original video–at least the first minute or so–to understand what they were doing with part of the Die Hard commercial, so here’s the original 1979 video:

And here’s the Die Hard commercial in full:

What song did you hear that just knocked you out on the first listen? Tell me in the comments!

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138: Wish You Were Here

In a relatively short period of time, Pink Floyd went from a band with a fairly small but loyal fan base to an international phenomenon. And it was taking its toll on the members of the group. Even as they were putting together this, probably their most cohesive album, they were largely working in isolation. Only occasionally were all four members in the studio at the same time as they worked on it.

This sense of alienation from each other and their newfound audience, plus the cynicism of the record label executives they met up with after the success of Dark Side of the Moon, gave rise to Wish You Were Here. (The story goes that they did, indeed, have someone ask them “Which one’s Pink?”) In addition, the band was sorely missing founding member Syd Barrett, who’d left the group a few years earlier after having a breakdown. There were a few attempts to bring him back, but Barrett just wasn’t able to bring the spark he’d had previously.

Wish You Were Here the album explores all of these themes separately, but I’d argue that “Wish You Were Here” the song ties all of them into a neat little bow. From that point there are only about twelve minutes left to the album. That leaves twelve minutes of a coda bringing the whole thing to a tidy close.

So where have I been the last few weeks? I’ve been doing some pondering about re-working the show a little bit, and getting some new elements in. So you’ll hear some big differences in the beginning of the show (and a little bit at the end), and I’ll be trying out a couple of other things soon as well.

Here’s a for-instance: the show has new theme music! Thanks to the generosity of the show’s Patrons, I was able to commission some custom music for the show. I’ll always have a soft place in my heart for “Surfing Day” but I think this new track has a little bit of the same feel and I hope you like it as much as I do. (You can hear it unsullied by my voice on the Facebook page.)

For what it’s worth, the show has been away for a few weeks, but I haven’t. I’ve been communicating with the Patreon crowd every Sunday morning via the newsletter. If you’d like to see what that’s about, click here to become a Patron of the Show. You won’t be able to see the recent newsletters, but you can see the ones from this past fall.

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136: Ain’t No Sunshine

Original photo by Marcus Castro, available on Scopio.

Bill Withers was an aspiring musician, but he kept his feet on the ground for a long time. Even after his first album started to climb the charts, he kept working his job assembling bathrooms in an airplane factory because he thought the music industry was fickle. He wasn’t wrong, incidentally. But in his case he may have been pessimistic. It wasn’t until “Ain’t No Sunshine” went Gold that he finally left the factory job and went on tour to support the album.

Just as I Am (Bill Withers album) - Wikipedia

Given the star power that supported him with the recording of his debut album, Just As I Am, it’s a small wonder that he became such a huge star right away. When you’ve got Booker T. Jones producing and the rest of the MGs, plus Stephen Stills and Jim Keltner on drums, you’re going to be a huge hit. Or, maybe you’re not nearly as good as you think you are, and you may as well spend the rest of your life in that factory.

“Ain’t No Sunshine” wasn’t the first single off the album. And I don’t think I’m spoiling any surprises here when I tell you this: It isn’t too tough to figure out how it got all the airplay, and eventually all the sales, that it did.

Oh—and, as promised, here’s the video of the cover by the Black Label Society from a few years back. They’re a heavy metal band, but this cover is mostly acoustic. Zakk Wylde kind of digs the negative attention that the video got for the use of the horse masks (and more) that you’ll see in this video. But maybe just lean back and enjoy it instead of reading into it too deeply.

I’m aiming for the next show to drop on January 3, so until then: have a Happy and Safe New Year!

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134: Maggie May

NOTE: I got word that there was a problem with the uploaded file. It should be fine now. Apologies for those of you who had hassles.

(Original photo by Meg Wagener for Unsplash)

Let me start by thanking the show’s newest Patron, Scott Fraser, for joining the family!

Next: my apologies: I counted on taking a week’s break but not two. I got remarkably sick a couple of times in the past week, culminating with a trip that involved having testing swabs stuck up my nose to varying depths, depending on what they were looking for that time. They were relieved to tell me that I “only” had food poisoning…they think. Reassuring? Anyway, if I sound a little rough in this episode, now you know why.

There are several elements of the story behind “Maggie May” which are going to sound very familiary to you, if only because I’ve told a variation on them at some point in the past with regard to other songs.

On the other hand, there are definitely a few elements to “Maggie May” which you’re not going to hear anywhere else, because not every song starts with getting deflowered at a jazz festival’s swan song.

Oh–and as promised, here’s Godley and Creme’s first video, for their own “Englishman in New York.”

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132: Knock Three Times

So I’m in the Southern Studio again this weekend, which means I don’t have a good handle on the way the show sounds until long after I’ve posted it. Also, I tried something very different with my workflow this week so I’m curious to know what you think of the way the shows sounds at your end. I won’t be upset if you think it stinks, promise. Next week I’ll be back in Baltimore, sounding more typical.

To tell the story of “Knock Three Times” we had to dive a little bit into the early career of Tony Orlando and how he got that way. Orlando had actually retired from singing and was doing well with producing and working in Columbia Records’ music publishing department, when someone asked him a favor: could you please record this for us?

Orlando said, “No thanks. You’re not even a Columbia label. “

They said, “Please? We’ll give you three thousand dollars.”

And Orlando said, “Don’t put my name on this or there’ll be trouble.”

Candida (song) - Wikipedia

So Bell Records kept their promise and released the record under the name Dawn. They even took the time to fake a photo of the band for the 45’s picture sleeve. Look at those guys over there. None of them are on this record. They’re literally just four guys in a photograph. The band was composed of session musicians and a couple of backup singers, including Toni Wine, who co-wrote the song.

This wound up being a good news/bad news thing, because “Candida” was a pretty huge hit worldwide, and Bell Records got hot for a follow-up track. Orlando went back into the studio with the same session players and made an entire album, including a second single, “Knock Three Times.” That song was an even bigger hit, and Orlando was forced to come out in the open, hire some genuine members of Dawn and go on tour.

But I’m pretty sure it worked out okay for him in the end, yeah?

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131: Candle in the Wind

Elton John and Bernie Taupin were in a remarkably productive period in the early 1970s. Over a span of just two weeks they’d not only written enough material for an album, they’d written enough for two. And they were thematically similar enough that all the songs could be combined into a single two-LP package. That became the double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which yielded three hit singles. It would have generated at least one more, but in the meantime John had cranked out yet another album (Caribou), and any more singles from Goodbye would have delayed Caribou‘s release.

So “Harmony” became a B side, and while “Candle in the Wind” had been released as a single in the UK, it never came out in the US. However, 1973 was early in the period when FM radio was starting to grow, and some radio stations were only too happy to play entire album sides without interruption. And since Side 1 of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road could be considered practically a single piece, “Candle in the Wind” got some FM airplay then. At any rate, it wasn’t an unknown quantity by the time 1986 rolled around and Elton played it in concert in Australia, where the song made it onto the live album he released the next year and it WAS released as a single, this time charting in the US and (again) in the UK.

Because the song had gotten some national attention it turned out that Princess Diana was familiar with it to the point where she’d told Elton John that she’d found herself identifying with some of the predicaments that the Marilyn Monroe of the song had faced during her lifetime. So when Diana was killed in a car crash at the same age that Marilyn was when she died, and when the Royal Family asked Elton John to play at Diana’s funeral, Elton asked Bernie Taupin to come up with new lyrics for the song.

And thus it was that “Candle in the Wind” found new life on the charts. But there’s more to the story than just that. Tune in and find out what!

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129: Seasons in the Sun

It’s whiny. It’s treacly. It’s mushy. It’s kind of a bad song. I’m not going to talk you out of any of those things. This isn’t one of those shows where I try to convince you—and perhaps myself—that an objectively bad song is somehow good. (And if you don’t know what songs those are, that means I’m doing a pretty good job.)

But the fact is, “Seasons in the Sun” absolutely dominated nearly the first half of 1974, and like Kurt Cobain, it was one of the first records I bought with my own money. I promise I’m not considering any self-injurious behavior today.

Not today.

And like Norman Greenbaum before him with “Spirit in the Sky”, Terry Jacks was able to use the money he made from his song to do pretty much whatever he wanted for the rest of his life. Maybe we should all write a song with the title “[thing] in the [another thing]”, hm? Could that be the secret to financial security?

Incidentally, I used different software to record this episode. Usually I use Audacity, but I heard a lot of good stuff about a program called Hindenburg, and while there’s a bit of a learning curve involved, it’s pretty good and may actually change my workflow once I get better used to it. If it sounds better or worse, I’d be curious to hear from you about it.

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125–Psycho Killer

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It’s about time I got around to covering the Talking Heads, don’t you think?

Weirdly, a lot of their material is kind of under-researched, unless you’re willing to do deep dives into the biographies and such. However, that seems to be loosening up in recent years as more people get nostalgic about the 1980s. And now I’m realizing that that’s like my grandparents being nostalgic for World War 2.

Anyway, that, I think, is why I was able to find a decent amount of material for this song. It was the Heads’ first single and the one that encouraged David Byrne to keep on keeping on. Because, while it didn’t chart huge in the US (peaking at Number 92 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart), it gave him the understanding that there was, in fact, an audience out there for his rather peculiar musical style.

And, as promised, here’s a video of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performing their version of this song in 2009. Stay with it, it’s pretty cool.

I am NOT, on the other hand, going to link you to “Psycho Chicken.” You can find that one on your own. You have been warned.

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