The Grateful Dead were definitely a rock band, and at the same time they managed to defy most definitions with regard to their specific genre. Sometimes they were funky, sometimes they were bluesy, sometimes they were jazzy, sometimes even gospel. Usually they were jamming, and rather than discouraging fans from recording their concerts, they encouraged it, often even giving them opportunities to plug recorders into their own equipment. Going to a Dead concert was a weird, beautiful, communal experience, and I think the closest equivalent in the absence of Jerry Garcia and Company would be…I don’t know, maybe Phish? The one time I went to a Phish show was in 1999 at what was then the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (Now the PNC Bank P.A.C.), and it was a very similar vibe, right down to the joint being passed down the row from god knows where.
They started out as The Warlocks in 1965 but changed their name after they discovered that The Velvet Underground had already released an album with that title. Stories vary with regard to how they came up with the new name: Phil Lesh says that he found it in a Britannica World Language Dictionary; Garcia’s story is that he found it in an old dictionary of folklore. At any rate, the name stuck and the concerts became known as special events to be experienced.
But while they were enormously popular, their records didn’t exactly burn up the charts. While it took them a few years to crack the Hot 100, it was over 22 years before they saw their one and only Top Ten record. And coincidentally, that’s the one we’re talking about in this episode.
UPDATE: Somewhere in the production process, the beginning of the show was truncated. I’ve replaced the episode and all should be well now. Apologies to anyone who was confused by the show beginning with me, mid-sentence.
This week, we’ve got a super-sized episode of the show (nearly an hour!) as I sit down with Christopher McKittrick, author of Can’t Give it Away on Seventh Avenue: The Rolling Stones and New York City.
Chris and I had a fascinating chat about the band and their long-term relationship with New York. All of them, whether collectively or as individuals, spent a lot more time there than you probably suspect, and McKittrick takes us along on the journey, demonstrating how the city infused itself into their lyrics, perhaps subtly at first in albums such as Goat’s Head Soup, but certainly more overtly by the time they got to one of their best albums, Some Girls.
Christopher took the time to run down a bunch of rumors related to the Rolling Stones, some of them started (as it turns out) by the band themselves. It’s a fascinating journey for fans of both the Stones, the City, and Rock and Roll in general.
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So about a million years ago, back in Episode 8 (“Like a Rolling Stone”), I spent a bunch of time during that show talking about the snare shot that opened the song, and how it was practically the Shot Heard Round The World and how it Changed Everything on the rock and roll landscape.
I still believe that, and that particular episode of the podcast remains one of my favorites (if you do nothing else, follow the link to the interactive video and have a blast).
But as it turns out, this past weekend I came across a quotation from Bruce Springsteen that underlines and validates everything I said, and maybe a little more poetically, because, you know, Bruce Springsteen can be a brilliant lyricist and I’m just some guy spouting off. Springsteen was the person who inducted Bob Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and this was part of his speech:
The first time that I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother, and we were listening to, I think, WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind, from “Like a Rolling Stone.” And my mother, who was no stiff with rock & roll, she said, “That guy can’t sing.” But I knew she was wrong. I sat there, I didn’t say nothin’, but I knew that I was listening to the toughest voice that I had ever heard. It was lean, and it sounded somehow simultaneously young and adult, and I ran out and I bought the single. I played it, then I went out and I got Highway 61, and it was all I played for weeks. Bob’s voice somehow thrilled and scared me. It made me feel kind of irresponsibly innocent. And it still does. But it reached down and touched what little worldliness a 15-year-old kid in New Jersey had in him at the time.
See? Bruce Springsteen agrees with me, so I can’t be wrong.
In 1981 Bonnie Tyler had exactly one hit, 1977’s “It’s a Heartache”, so it was no mystery why people were calling her a one-hit wonder. Her record label cut her loose, so she found a new manager and talked Jim Steinman, the guy responsible for Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, into partnering with her for a new album. Steinman wasn’t easily convinced, but ultimately he came to her with a couple of older songs that he thought she could record, and when she agreed to those, he came to her with a nearly complete package: here’s the song, here’s who else is going to be performing on it, you just need to come in and sing your little heart out.
That doesn’t match with the popular narrative, that “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was originally written for Meat Loaf as part of his follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell, but it turns out that the guy responsible for that popular narrative about Meat Loaf was…Meat Loaf. But the story caught on, because if you listen to “Eclipse,” you could easily imagine its huge levels of production as being Meat Loaf-esque. But “Eclipse” wasn’t written for him, nor was the other song (a hit for Air Supply) to which he laid the same claim.
I was about 15 when I saw Devo performing on Saturday Night Live that October night in 1978. They performed “Jocko Homo”, which gave newcomers (like me) a little bit of an introduction to themselves with that lyric “Are we not men?/We are Devo”.
A friend of mine had already turned me on to Gary Numan a few months earlier, and this felt like the logical next step. And as I sat there in the darkened room (’cause I wasn’t supposed to be up), bathing in the glow from the TV, I was struck in much the same way I was a couple of years later when the B-52s appeared on the same show. “This is SO WEIRD,” I said to myself. “And it’s SO COOL.”
Mark Mothersbaugh jumping back and forth between the microphone and the keyboards, and when the band took off the yellow jumpsuits, and Mothersbaugh had trouble removing his because even though the pants were breakaway, he couldn’t remove the sleeves for some reason, and the whole thing told me that stuff was changing. Music is changing. Maybe even culture is changing. And then they played their cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and at first I admit I was a little put off, but I relaxed into it and even by the time that was over I was all, “yeah, this is cool.” And then it turned out that Jagger really liked it too.
Here’s a link to that performance on Tumblr. Who knows how long it’ll last.
Good stuff. Good memories.
Oh, here’s the cover they did for the Gateway commercial. It’s so stupid that you have to love it. I think this is from 2002:
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Apologies for the delay; I’m powering through a wicked chest cold, and then my podcasting host was giving me the blues about the audio file, so I eventually had to upload in a different format. I do hope this doesn’t affect your listening experience. Please let me know if it does!
Tears For Fears–specifically founders Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal–had been kicking around the music scene in the UK for a couple of years, and even had a pretty popular album over there before most people in the United States had even heard of them. (Which reminds me: yes, the story I tell about meeting Curt Smith is true. What I didn’t know at the time was that he was doing Seeds of Love publicity stuff solo because he and Orzabal had temporarily broken up the band.)
Even when it came time for the band to release a single in the United States, the label interceded and suggested that while “Shout” was a perfectly good song, it wouldn’t make for a very good debut song. They turned out to be right, and “Shout” was saved for later on, a move that turned the Songs from the Big Chair album, and Tears for Fears, into a huge success.
There’s more to the story, of course, but why waste it here when you can put it in your head? Either your podcatcher has it, or you’re gonna listen to/download it from here:
No episode next week; I’m taking a planned break. In two weeks, we’ll dig on some early Linda Ronstadt.
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In the late 1970s, Pink Floyd had come up with a trio of very solid albums, one of which still hadn’t left the Billboard Top 200 since its release in 1973. And between that, the growing popularity of Pink Floyd as the musical basis for laser shows, and a lot of Album-Oriented Rock airplay, the band was becoming popular enough that their audiences were getting to the point of their being able to fill very large arenas such as stadiums.
This posed a problem for the band, as they thought that A) people weren’t coming to the shows for the “right” reasons, which led to B) they were feeling a growing separation from their audiences. After an unfortunate incident (fortunately on the last night of their Animals tour), the band took some planned time off to recharge, and Roger Waters took the opportunity to put together some songs that drew upon the bad experiences they were having, plus an offhand comment he made to producer Bob Ezrin and his friend, who turned out to be a psychiatrist. He came up with two separate concepts, which he presented to the other band members a year later: one eventually became his solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking; the other became The Wall.
The Wall was likely to just become another pretty good Pink Floyd album, even if it was a double album, but some financial setbacks for the band meant that David Gilmour was temporarily unable to do as much as he ordinarily would, and so Roger Waters brought in Bob Ezrin to help. Ezrin, uncredited at the time, helped Waters and Gilmour really beat the overall concept into a cohesive shape, and he made a couple of tweaks to one song that, despite the band’s initial reservations, ultimately made the song catchier while still retaining its original Pink Floyd-iness. That song became the centerpiece of the album and the band’s only Number One song, but what a monster Number One it was, topping the charts in nations around the world.
Pink Floyd was going through so much stress that they actually broke up after a fashion; most of them stayed together but their keyboardist, Richard Wright, quit before the album was finished (or he was fired, depending on whom you ask). He was hired as a session musician for the tour, so nobody really knew that the band had fractured so badly. But it was the beginning of the end for Pink Floyd as so many people think of them. Their next album was a rehash of older material, and the one after that (The Final Cut) was leftovers from The Wall repurposed into an anti-war screed related to Britain’s conflict in the Falkland Islands. Wright was long gone by then, and Gilmour didn’t like the direction the album had taken, and that was pretty much it for them.
So while it may have seemed as though The Wall was the impetus for the band’s breakup, in fact it was a masterpiece despite the fact that things were going so badly for its members…much like another British band that released a double album with a white cover. Hm, I just thought of that!
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Dan Aykroyd, who is well-known for being interested in parapsychology, came up with the idea of creating a comedy horror film in the tradition of the movie comedians he’d grown up watching. The first draft was a bit of a mess, but Aykroyd is a good egg in this respect and knows that he’s a better Idea Guy than a Polished Script Writer, so he handed off the project to director Ivan Reitman and a few others, and threw in some jargon and other ideas along the ride.
Reitman and his (and Aykroyd’s) agent Michael Ovits went to Columbia Pictures and, pulling a dollar figure out of a hat (roughly three times what Reitman spent on Stripes), got a budget of $25,000,000, which was HUGE for a comedy at that time. Columbia slated the film to open about a year later, which really put the team in a crunch position, especially since the script was still being re-written and there were lots of special effects to create.
So many things could have gone wrong and made the film a flop (in fact, Columbia execs thought so at first), but it caught on with audiences, and part of that success was the support it got from its theme song, written by Ray Parker Jr after several other musicians had either turned down the project, or given it a shot and found lacking. But his original 20-second effort (what he was commissioned for) excited Reitman so much that he convinced Parker to write a complete song, and he’d support it with a video. That video became only the second one featuring an African-American artist on MTV.
As I mention during the show, the video involved a lot of items painted on glass, and then the camera shot through the glass, giving everything a funky, ethereal look.
Glass shots were also popularly used in films as a cheap way of creating illusions that are more easily done nowadays with green screens and CGI imagery. In this shot from Star Wars below, only the walkway to the right (where the stormtroopers are standing) and the cone-shaped gizmo on which Obi-Wan Kenobi is standing is real and full-size. Everything else, including the pillar below the cone-shaped gizmo, is painted on a sheet of glass carefully placed in front of the camera. It’s like doing a matte shot on the cheap.
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In 1978, Benny Mardones was a struggling singer-songwriter whose first album tanked partially because the label went bankrupt shortly after it was released. In fact, it remained out of print until 2012, when another label got ahold of it and released it on compact disc.
The story goes that Benny was living in an apartment in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, and there was a family in the building that was on hard times, so he helped support them, in part by paying their 16-year-old daughter Heidi the sum of $50 a week to walk his dog.
As they got close to finishing his second album (and the first for his new label), Benny and his writing partner were working out a song when Heidi came through the door to get the dog. It was then that they realized they’d been working all night long, and the partner’s response to Heidi’s presence inspired the opening line to the song.
And, as the story goes, the rest of the song is Mardones trying to express his deep affection for the Heidi and her family despite all the bad stuff that’s happened to them. And there’s a certain recognition that his success isn’t necessarily their success. Now, that’s pretty much the story that Mardones has told repeatedly, and I guess you can believe him, but it also makes you wonder why he agreed to the plotline that appears in the video, which makes him look like a middle-aged guy creeping on a teeny bopper (who, incidentally, has exactly one facial expression throughout the video).
The song made it to Number 11 in 1980, and again in 1989, putting in 37 non-consecutive weeks on the charts, the second-largest number of weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1980s, but not even close to the all-time record (I’ll let you Google it, the answer is kind of depressing).
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The Billboard Hot 100 chart has been around for about 60 years. In all that time, only seven songs which weren’t recorded in English have made it to the Number One position. And there are several other foreign-language songs which enjoyed plenty of popularity without making it to the top spot, but the fact is, in United States it’s tough to score a hit if your song isn’t in English.
So this week I tried to come up with a comprehensive list of non-English songs that made it to the Top 20. This definitely became a case of “the more you find, the more there is to find” so I’m not at all sure I caught everything, but it’s a pretty good list, and at over 18 minutes, it’s an overstuffed episode besides.
I think that some of the songs that didn’t make Number One are going to be a surprise to you, but a couple of the ones that did, may also be surprising. And there’s one artist who actually hit the Top Five twice, with songs that aren’t in English. And no, it’s not Dean Martin. I shan’t spoil it here, but I will say that this one really knocked me out.
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