Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Terry Kath's Solo on "25 or 6 to 4"


The rock band Chicago, currently celebrating their 40th year in the music business, have never been a darling of the critics but there was a time when the Windy City jazz-rock outfit had a lot of street cred with young music fans everywhere. I have always believed (despite their early outspokenness against the Viet Nam War) that magazines such as Rolling Stone always hated them because their public behavior was never anti-establishment enough to suit the rock press who, during that era, often confused boorishness with artistic genius and self-expression. Unlike Jim Morrison, they never dropped their pants on stage.

During Chicago’s salad days of the early 70s the critics were the only ones who didn’t like them. Music teachers liked them. Jazz musicians liked them. Doc Severenson, Duke Ellington, and Jimi Hendrix called themselves fans. Hendrix even took them on tour with him. He was also credited with saying to Chicago’s woodwind player, Walt Parazaider, "When I saw you guys out there, I saw three horn players with one set of lungs, and a guitar player who's better than me!"

I can pontificate about their eternally underrated keyboardist/composer Robert Lamm and trombonist James Pankow's horn arrangements. I can praise the greatness of drummer Danny Seraphine and even the fine rock singing of the very young Peter Cetera. (Yes, there was a time when Cetera didn’t wear smoking jackets on stage, back before he sang duets with Amy Grant). However, today I won’t discuss any of them because I want to talk about my all time favorite guitar solo and the man who played it, the late Terry Kath.

Kath's solo on Lamm's "25 or 6 to 4" will always hold a special place for me. The album version of this song from Chicago II, in which he really lets it wail, is pure rock & roll heaven. I’m not conversant enough about the nuances of guitar playing to analyze what he is doing on “25 or 6 to 4” but to me it’s an original solo whose freshness never wanes. He could rock and be tasteful all at the same time.

Listen to some of Kath's other work with Chicago. I have always believed he could wield an ax with the giants of the business. Most lead players demand the spotlight but he never did. In fact much of his best work came as a rhythm guitarist when the horn section was in the forefront. Kath was one of the few rhythm players you could actually hear on a record. Prime examples of his versatility playing jazz and acoustic music are on Chicago VII, the band's last adventurous album.

There may be better and more famous guitar players than Terry Kath. However, he was a significant factor in one of America’s most popular 70s bands and his smokin’ solo on the album version of "25 or 6 to 4" has always been one of my most memorable musical moments. The man never got the credit he deserved because he was in a band the press despised.

Chicago issued a Kath retrospective in 1997 titled The Innovative Guitar of Terry Kath that is a good sampler of his talents.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Rise Of FM Alternative Rock Radio


Among my oldest memories are listening to my mother's kitchen radio tuned to the music popular with adults of the early 60s. True, those artists included some giants such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass but unfortunately I also had to listen to The Ray Coniff Singers and The Singing Nun.

Then in February 1964 The Beatles arrived in New York to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. It wasn't love at first sight but my conversion came about swiftly and completely. From then on music challenged baseball as a childhood obsession.

The Beatles led me to listen to Philadelphia's only radio station that played rock & roll, top 40 WIBG, 99 on the AM dial. Then I moved on to the more modern, faster-paced WFIL, Famous 56, who usurped WIBG's throne. For those of us living in the northern Philadelphia suburbs we could also listen to the king of all the top 40 stations, New York City's WABC, Musicradio 77, whose signal was actually stronger than WIBG's at night. After dark I also remember tuning in to WCFL, Chicago and CKLW in Windsor, Ontario. Those stations all had one thing in common: very limited playlists.

The top 40 stations were not without their advantages. I was exposed to genres and artists I never knew existed. In the Spring of 1965 my first exposure to black music was on WIBG. I had never heard anything before that sounded like Motown, James Brown, and Ray Charles. I remember hearing my first Beach Boys song, "Help Me Rhonda." WIBG is where I first heard country music. While the styles of music broadcast on these stations varied wildly the listener would only hear the same forty songs over, and over, and over again. WABC even played the number one song every hour!

Broadcasters just didn't seem to care about FM radio. It had been languishing in obscurity for twenty years despite its superior clarity and static free, stereo sound. With FM you could even listen to the radio during a thunderstorm or while driving under an overpass.

Then in July 1965 the bureaucrats at the FCC actually did America a favor. They ruled that any FM radio station that was owned and operated by an AM station would no longer be allowed to simulcast the AM station's programming for more than 50% of the broadcast day. This meant that many FM stations all over America had to come up with a lot of new programming. The deadline for meeting this new requirement was January 1, 1967. The stage was now set for the advent of FM rock radio.

Just as The Beatles arrival on these shores totally changed everything about how I viewed music the new FM programming broadened my horizons even more. "Underground" or "alternative" radio stations were able to experiment and play music the AM stations would never think of playing. WIP, 610 AM in Philadelphia, had an FM affiliate that eventually became WMMR, one of the pioneering FM alternative rock stations in America.

In 1967 a DJ named Dave Herman had an evening show on WMMR called The Marconi Experiment. The show aired from 7 PM until Midnight and played only music that AM radio wouldn't touch. Most DJs were allowed to select their own music. FM played fewer commercials so there was a lot more room for the disc jockey to stretch out with all kinds of musical experimentation. One night Herman played the entire "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" with its famous guitar riff and drum solo. It clocked in at 17:05. Pink Floyd's "Saucerful Of Secrets," at 11:57, was another track I remember Herman spinning. I heard Frank Zappa and Jimmy Hendrix for the first time. None of these artists or tracks were likely to be played on AM.

By 1972 GM, Ford, and Chrysler were adding FM radios to their cars as standard equipment. This enabled FM outlets to annually increase their audience and by 1978 they began to win the ratings wars. Today FM remains the dominant radio medium despite the advent of satellite and Internet radio.

So many people had their musical lives broadened by exposure to FM's wide spectrum of music that I believe the 1965 FCC ruling is one of the defining moments in the history of rock & roll and popular music. My tastes, and I'm sure those of a whole lot of other young people, were strongly shaped by what we heard during the years of FM's rise to prominence.

Monday, July 16, 2007

WXPN's 885 Most Memorable Musical Moments

WXPN, 88.5 FM, Philadelphia, is doing it again. Their fourth annual listener poll is here. Having already counted down the 885 favorite songs, albums, and artists over the previous three years many of the station's faithful fans have wondered what they can do this year to top the three previous countdowns.

Rules, details, and instructions on how to participate are available on a new web site that has just been put online today for WXPN's 885 Most Memorable Musical Moments (885 MMMM). How does the non-commercial station define a "memorable musical moment"? According to the website, "We don't define a Moment—you do! It could be any musical instance that you feel is of historic or personal significance."

Submissions begin today for a countdown that will be broadcast over 88.5 for two weeks beginning on October 2nd.

As part of the festivities WXPN's Program Director, Bruce Warren, invited a lineup of guest bloggers to write weekly about their own "memorable musical moments" that will be posted on the countdown's website. Bloggerhythms has been offered a chance to participate so every Wednesday, from now until the end of August, a new memorable moment will be posted here and added to the station's 885 MMMM website every Thursday. CD reviews will return in September. Check back here this Wednesday for the first post of the series.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The 2007 Mid-Year Review

It's hard to believe that CD sales continue to decline because 2007 has been a top notch year for music. Great discs are being released at a fast and furious pace. It's only July and I've listened to so much good music this year that I already have enough CDs to make up my year end Top Five list. So far the year's best CDs include an artist from the heyday of classic rock, a current and popular modern rock band, a young female singer-songwriter, a veteran Celtic-rock band from Los Angeles, and a heavily ska influenced band from Australia that is just getting noticed in America.

Commercial radio is far less adventurous than it was during the days of FM's rise to prominence in the late 60s and early 70s. If all you listen to is traditional FM radio you are missing out on a lot because almost all of the stations are tightly programmed and play only a smattering of all the music that is released. If you want variety you have to go searching for music that doesn't fit commercial radio's target demographics. Fortunately, with Internet radio, HD radio, XM, and Sirius there are more opportunities than ever to hear a wide range of music. You just have to put in a little effort, and maybe spend some money, to hear it.

Here are my picks for the top five CDs of the first half of 2007. As you can read the full reviews elsewhere on this website my comments on each will be brief and, in keeping with the theme of where to find new music, each capsule review will include a few words on how I discovered the disc.

1. America - Here & Now
After more than thirty years Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell (two-thirds of the original trio) prove that an established act can stay fresh and relevant and still be true to their own artistic selves. With help from producers Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins America released their best album since the 70s.

How I discovered this disc: I was always only a casual fan of America. I really liked their first two albums a lot. After that their soft-rock often became too soft but positive press about Here & Now, and the intrigue surrounding the producers, piqued my interest so I bought this CD unheard and I'm very glad that I did. Read the full review.

2. The Shins - Wincing The Night Away
I still don't understand one line of James Mercer's cryptic lyrics but it doesn't matter. The Shins unique sound welds pop with tight, well-arranged rock that combines touches of new wave and prog (without any of prog's excesses) into something very satisfying. Guitars, synths, and Mercer's pleasing vocals make this CD a deserved hit. Here is the original review.

How I discovered this disc: The songs "Australia" and "Phantom Limb" were being played in regular rotation on WXPN, 88.5 FM, Philadelphia. WXPN is a non-commercial adult alternative radio station that plays everything from folk, to blues, to modern rock. For those of you who don't live in Philadelphia you can stream the station easily.

3. Young Dubliners - With All Due Respect: The Irish Sessions
My Top 5 lists seem to never be without a Celtic rock band. The Dubs, from Los Angeles, use their tin whistles and fiddles to good effect on this disc of covers of traditional Irish folk songs and songs by contemporary Irish rockers. This is a loud, hard-rocking, disc that can be played at any party.

How I discovered this disc: The All Music Guide New Release Newsletter is emailed to me every Tuesday with reviews of many significant new releases. This CD was among them. Being a fan of both Celtic rock and The Dubs prior albums I added this CD to my collection without hearing a note. The complete review is available here.

4. The Cat Empire - Two Shoes
This hot Aussie band recorded this mixture of ska, reggae, and Latin jazz in late 2004. Their CD was just released in America early this year. It's a fun record full of clever lyrics and arrangements. Here are more details.

How I discovered this disc: I subscribe to Paste, a monthly music magazine that specializes in a lot of unknown artists. Every monthly issue includes a sampler CD of new music, most of it by unknown artists. "Sly," the opening track of Two Shoes was one of these and I was immediately taken in by the horn section and the overall feel of the record. This led me to seek out the CD which I found in a used CD store in Manhattan.

5. Brandi Carlile - The Story
Carlile, from rural Washington, is one of the best young singer-songwriters making music today. She has a great voice and writes articulate songs. The catchy title cut deserves massive commercial radio airplay and is the song of the year. To learn more read the whole story.

How I discovered this disc: The title cut was in regular rotation on WXPN.