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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My wife and I bought a condominium in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina this past week. The closing was supposed to be on Monday but there was a snafu, so we wound up wandering up and down a 30-mile stretch of coast from North Myrtle Beach down to Pawley’s Island, in a rented high-top cargo van full of stuff we’d intended to move into the condo after the closing. We still had a couple of pieces of furniture that we needed, so we popped into pretty much every consignment shop we could find, looking for a sleeper sofa that matched Wife’s design concept that wouldn’t break the bank. After a few minutes in any given store, I’d get restless and start looking through some of the other stuff, including the used records that were for sale.
The closing, and the recording of the documentation, didn’t take place until Thursday, which is the day that Aretha Franklin died. By sheer coincidence, we were in a consignment shop called Good Times, down in the Pawley’s Island area. And while we’d actually located the sleeper sofa we were looking for, I of course was looking at other stuff. This store, however, didn’t have any records to unload, except for a very small pile on a high shelf. I’m talking maybe fifteen albums, and that was the entire store’s inventory of vinyl.
As it happened, one of the records was a copy of Aretha’s first album for Atlantic Records, I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You. What’s more, it was in good shape and it still had its original inner sleeve. It was worth nearly three times what they were asking for it, and I jumped at the opportunity. I hadn’t even heard the news yet.
Aretha Franklin, her music and her performance style left an impact on the music world that is immeasurable, and the reaction of her fellow music stars, in addition to performers of all stripes, bears witness to this.
This week, we take a crack at remembering the Queen of Soul, who coincidentally died on the same date as the King of Rock, Elvis Presley. (August 16 is also the anniversary of the death of blues pioneer Robert Johnson. This is not a good date if you’re a musical groundbreaker.)
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As promised, here’s her 2015 performance at the Kennedy Center Honors show, during the segment honoring Carole King. Watch for the standing ovation mid-song.
Also, just for fun, here’s a clip from a 1991 episode of Murphy Brown. In the episode, Murphy gets an opportunity to interview Aretha Franklin, whom she has worshipped, live on television. She convinces the producer to give her the entire hour. Unfortunately, Aretha is delayed and the entire cast of the show has to vamp and otherwise fill time until her arrival, which unfortunately doesn’t happen at any point in the hour. As the clip starts, everyone has departed the studio except Murphy.
It was the late 1970s and Disco was finally making that transition out of the clubs, to be replaced by Hip-Hop or New Wave, depending on where you hung out. And the members of Blondie were at the forefront of the Hip-Hop movement, going to clubs and seeing performers freestyling in the streets.
When Fab Five Freddy suggested to Deborah Harry and Chris Klein that they should write a song about him, they thought it was a good idea and came up with a song that represented several “firsts” in the music industry:
First Rap record to reach #1 on the Billboard charts;
First Rap video on MTV;
First Rap video in MTV’s 90-song rotation.
Unfortunately for the band, it was also their last major chart success in the US, but it paved the way for a bunch of other artists to move forward with the genre.
Incidentally, I mentioned this during recording and it wound up being edited out, but the sax player on this record is none other than Tom Scott.
Around the same time this record came out, the Tom Tom Club was working on a rap track of their own, “Wordy Rappinghood”. However, neither group knew what the other was up to, because Blondie was working in New York City while the Tom Tom Club was in the Bahamas.
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Murray Head is one of those guys whose name you may or may not know, but you’re certainly familiar with some of his work.
In 1970 he worked on a concept album with Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The first single from that album was written and recorded before the entire rest of the album, and it was released by the record company to gauge interest in the idea of an entire album built around that idea. The song did poorly in the US, at least at first, but international sales were enough that MCA Records gave the go-ahead to the rest of the album. And that’s how the original double album Jesus Christ Superstar came to be.
Fast-forward several years and Tim Rice again taps Murray Head to help him with a concept album, one that uses the chess rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union (no, literally: which country had the best chess players was a big deal in the 1970s and 80s) as a thinly-veiled metaphor for the Cold War. And once again, the success of the album leads to the production of a stage musical, called Chess.
And these two successes put Murray Head in an interesting place in the record books.
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Before I start this week’s windup, let me point you to a different podcast for a moment. The guys at the TMDR Podcast describe their show as being simultaneously about nothing and about everything, but they keep the shows confined to a couple of topics. I’ve been listening in on their discussions of the HBO series Westworld, and just this week they did a show where they spent some time reviewing several different podcasts, How Good It Is being among the shows they reviewed.
I have to say, I was blown away by the level of praise they gave to the show, and I just wanted to thank them yet again, and offer up this link (click on their logo at right). Go check them out; I think you’ll have some fun.
Back in the mid-1980s I went to a Fourth of July event on Long Island. Among the pre-fireworks entertainment was music provided by The Drifters. What I didn’t realize at the time was that there were LOTS of ex-Drifters simply, er, drifting about, and many of them had gotten together and were touring as The Drifters. What’s more, all of these groups could legally do so in many places around the country.
As it happened, I was young and naive, and kinda-sorta listening to their lead singer and the way he was singing staccato style, because he was older and couldn’t hold his notes for any appreciable length of time.
So did I see The Drifters or did I see “The Drifters”? There’s an element of “both” in my eyes, because there were so many people paid to be one of The Drifters that this group could easily be made up of former members. But that didn’t mean I was watching Ben E. King or Clyde McPhatter.
“Under the Boardwalk” was recorded the day after their lead singer Rudy Lewis died. They recruited a former member from several years ago, and before long a new version of the group had cranked out their second-biggest hit.
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Before I do anything else, let me give a shout-out to a friend of the podcast, and one of its first fans who wasn’t related to me. Connie Paulson provided the artwork that you see in this post. You can see more of her stuff if you hook up with the show’s Facebook page.
In 1975 Aerosmith was pretty much just another rock band with a modest hit, but when they got writer’s block, a trip to a Mel Brooks movie inspired them to come up with a title, and then Steven Tyler wrote the lyrics over the next day or so–twice, as the story goes. The song was a hit, and ten years later, it was a hit again when Aerosmith teamed up with rap act Run-DMC to cover the song. Check out the video; it’s fun, it’s very creative, and you barely notice that most of the band is missing:
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