Thursday, February 24, 2011

Forgotten Music Thursday: The Mix Tape From Hell

These days it appears that the best way for an artist to score a hit record and get radio airplay is to win American Idol or be a cast member on Glee, yet it wasn't that long ago that no one had ever heard of either TV phenomenon. Now, both shows are proof that popular songs often emerge from the least likely places.

The golden age of top 40 radio was also a time when the world found itself listening to hits that were spawned from unusual sources. It was an era when even jingles from TV commercials were turned into 45 RPM records that earned coveted spots on the record charts. One of the best known examples was an old Alka Seltzer commercial that became a smash hit called "No Matter What Shape Your Stomach Is In" by The T-Bones. It peaked at #3, on February 5, 1966. A few years later The New Seekers, an offshoot of Australian folk-poppers, The Seekers, the group who made "Georgy Girl" into a big hit, stole a Coca-Cola commercial and sent "I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing" to #7 on January 15, 1972.

Even military men who fought in The Viet Nam War became chartbusters. Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, a real Green Beret, had a brief singing career beginning with his first entry into the top 40, "The Ballad of The Green Berets," a single that was #1 for five weeks in March 1966. The song was a tribute to the brave fighting men who made great sacrifices in America's bloodiest and most controversial war. Sadler’s follow up, "The A-Team," reached #28 in May.

Perhaps the most bizarre story is the one of "Dominique." The record was sung by a Belgian nun using the English name The Singing Nun on her American records and the moniker Souer Sourire (Sister Smile) elsewhere. Her real name was Jeanine Deckers and she eventually left the Church because of her disagreements with Rome over contraception. Later, she and her female partner opened a school in Belgium for autistic children that ran into tax trouble with the government. Unfortunately, she and her very distraught companion committed suicide together over the scandal in 1985. "Dominique," sung in French, began a four week stint at #1 on Pearl Harbor Day, 1963. Is it any wonder that The Beatles, who released "I Want To Hold Your Hand" in America the very same month, were considered saviors of popular music?

Each of the songs discussed here is very different from the others in style, temperament, and in its appeal to certain demographic groups. While these tunes weren't the only hits to emerge from strange places they were among the more significant ones. Today, all of them are virtually forgotten, perhaps deservedly so. I'll let you decide.

First, here is "No Matter What Shape Your Stomach Is In" and the original Alka-Seltzer commercial that inspired it.

Next, you can listen to The New Seekers play their hit and the Coke commercial from which it was adapted.

Here is a video of Sadler singing "The Ballad of the Green Berets" on TV, and finally, you can listen to The Singing Nun do her thing.

A tip of the hat goes out to J. A. Bartlett, proprietor of The Hits Just Keep On Comin', a mighty fine blogger who kindly researched the chart positions of these long lost "treasures." He also came up with the title for this post. Thanks, J. B.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

An Album by Album Analysis of The Beatles Catalog: Beatlemania

Awhile back Bloggerhythms posted capsule reviews of all of the Chicago albums from the Terry Kath era and it turned out to be one of the more enjoyable ventures I’ve ever undertaken for this blog. So today, I’m going to begin the same project for my all time favorite artists, The Beatles. The albums under scrutiny will be the original British versions, because that is the way the group conceived them, and not the ripped up and reconfigured American releases they detested. This series of posts will include all of The Beatles’ official main albums, the two Past Masters sets, Live at the BBC, and the trio of anthologies, everything the Fab Four officially released. Because of the extensive diversity in their catalog the series will be broken into several categories. Today we’ll begin with the very early years that I dubbed Beatlemania 1. Soon to follow will be Beatlemania 2, The Psychedelic Era, The Later Beatles, and After The Beatles. Criticisms of these LPs should be taken only within the context of other Beatles records because, as the All Music Guide wrote, "a substandard Beatles record is better than almost any other group's best work."

Please Please Me (1963)
For those of you who want to know what the Fab Four sounded like back in their days playing in Hamburg and at Liverpool's Cavern Club this fourteen song set is easily the best example. The album contains eight originals and six cover versions that were part of their standard repertoire at the time. The record's arrangements are thin, the lyrics are simple, and the musicianship is just adequate. George Harrison, in particular, had not yet reached the pinnacle of his capabilities as a lead axeman. Producer George Martin had not yet begun to double track the lead vocals, there are no keyboards, and the only colorful flourishes occur with John Lennon’s harmonica. The LP is a formative work in every way so it does not show what these pop geniuses would become in the very near future. That said, why is this one of my favorite early Beatles albums? The answer is easy. Please Please Me has energy, it’s fun, and, even at this early date, the band’s original compositions were truly melodic and very, very, catchy. The title track (their second single and first #1) shows off the three part harmonies Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Harrison excelled at. "I Saw Her Standing There" is still a crowd pleasing concert closer for McCartney and all during their years of touring their cover version of "Twist and Shout" often ended the quartet’s shows. Other highlights include "P. S. I Love You," "Misery," "Chains," and "Baby, It’s You." "Love Me Do," their first single, was released the previous November and went to # 17 on the British charts.

With The Beatles (1963)
Issued as Meet The Beatles in America (with a very similar cover) this album was the first one to feature their classic,  early Beatles sound. The highlight is McCartney’s gem, "All My Loving." The set rocks more and is louder than Please Please Me but for the most part it lacks the classics most of their other LPs possess. The shorter, American version of the album is the better of the two because it contains both sides of their first American hit "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and "I Saw Her Standing There." This record also offers three of their best covers, "Roll Over Beethoven," "Please Mr. Postman," and "Til There Was You." Harrison, who wouldn’t jell into a significant force as a composer until Rubber Soul, presents his first self-penned song, "Don’t Bother Me."

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
This is the quartet’s early period masterpiece and is among the better records in their entire catalog. This thirteen song platter is the first one to be entirely self-written by Lennon and McCartney. The album contains all of the songs from their highly regarded first film and a whole host of other gems. While the sound is very similar to the one they employed on With The Beatles the duo’s songwriting has improved leaps and bounds. Classic songs are everywhere. The title track, with Harrison’s famous opening chord, is one of their trademarks. McCartney’s "Things We Said Today," and his partner’s "I Should Have Known Better," are both highlights. Lennon offers their loudest vocals to date on "Tell Me Why," and Ringo Starr’s cowbell punctuates "You Can’t Do That." Two of their best loved early ballads add some variety to the mostly raucous (for the time period, anyway) proceedings. Lennon’s "If I Fell" and McCartney’s "And I Love Her" had the girls swooning. This is the album to play if an alien spaceship touched down on Carnaby St. in 1964 and asked you what The Beatles were all about.

Beatles For Sale (1964)
The band's fourth full length release was a step backward as they returned to their formula of eight original songs with six cover versions. It’s always been assumed that the guys were too busy recording, touring, and filming movies to create another album of all originals so quickly. The covers are highlighted by McCartney’s shouting vocal of "Kansas City/ Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey." Their own songs included one of my favorites, "Eight Days a Week," and its absolutely wonderful and underrated flip side, "I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party." Lennon’s introspective "I’m A Loser," and another super McCartney ballad, "I’ll Follow The Sun," are worthy, as is a song that almost became a single, "No Reply."  Beatles For Sale is a good batch of songs. It just pales in comparison to its outstanding predecessor.

Past Masters, Volume 1 (1994)
These eighteen songs culled from EPs, hit singles, and B-sides issued from 1963 to 1965 were compiled together on one CD a whole generation later because none of them appeared on any of the British albums already discussed here. Don’t think for a minute that this set is just a bunch of inferior throwaways. The only reason many of these previously released hits never appeared on any of their original LPs is because The Beatles believed that forcing the public to buy the same songs twice was a ripoff. Some of their most famous tunes of the era are included. "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "She Loves You," "From Me To You," "I Feel Fine," and "She’s A Woman," are among them. Chuck Berry’s "Long Tall Sally," and originals "I Call Your Name," "I’m Down," "I’ll Get You," and "Thank You Girl" are all here. Two more songs featuring those great three part harmonies, "This Boy" and the little known "Yes It Is" are among the highlights.

COMING SOON: Beatlemania 2 (1965 – 1966), featuring Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. The Beatles prove that they are true artists while continuing to tour.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Doug Cowen & The Basics - Rockin' Town (2011)

Bloggerhythms has been a fan of Doug Cowen and The Basics ever since the release of their first CD, Bitter/Sweet, back in 2003 and I’m happy to report that one of the Midwest’s very best roots rock bands is still playing and going strong. Rockin’ Town, their latest independent, self-produced CD shows the veteran trio to be at the top of their game and that is because this collection of fourteen songs rocks harder than either their debut or it’s follow up, Private Drive (2006). While there are a few songs from those discs that are stronger than the fourteen tracks featured here, Rockin' Town is their best complete package because it's more consistent throughout the entire album.

This time around The Basics sound more like 70s hard rockers than a 60s garage band and they are at their very best when kicking butt. The group proved this earlier with the opening tracks from Bitter/Sweet. Both "Does the Bottle Burn," and "Bittersweet Road" should have been played on rock radio, and "In a Crowded Room" deserved to be a smash hit. All would have fit in well on Rockin’ Town.

The new disc offers the boisterous "Do Ya Love Me," a track with a long instrumental introduction that needs to be played loud. Without turning down the volume "Keep On Rockin" channels The Beach Boys well enough to make Brian Wilson proud. "Gonna Miss You (Tommy)" may be the most personal song Cowen has ever written. It's about his close friend and former member of The Basics, Tommy Thompson, who passed away last year. He obviously misses his friend and by motoring down a highway that hard rock hardly ever travels he makes the song quite heartfelt. Other highlights include "While You're Young," which would make a solid hit single.

Once again, the liner notes advise the listener that there are no obscenities on the CD. That makes The Basics a rock band for mature listeners even though everyone else is free to enjoy it too.

Lead singer, guitarist, and producer Cowen wrote all of the songs and, as always, he is ably assisted by Charley Neises on bass and drummer Ben Hahaj who also engineered the recording. Together the latter two make up a rhythm section worthy of any major rock band.

The trio almost broke up a couple years ago. However, both their friendship and their love of music prevented them from passing into musical history so Cowen and the guys continue to prove that they are one of Indiana's top unsigned bands. It’s a crying shame that The Basics have never broken nationally.

You can find out a lot more about these underappreciated rockers at their web page where you can hear a lot of music samples courtesy of Reverbnation.