Thursday, May 31, 2012

Forgotten Music Thursday: Bunny Berigan - I Can't Get Started (1937)

It isn’t often (actually, maybe never) that Bloggerhythms’ Wayback Machine has taken us on a ride to the days of the 78 RPM record and to pre-World War Two America but as a casual fan of the old big bands now is the time to stop, get off, and visit with Rowland Bernard Berigan, a jazz trumpet virtuoso of the late 1930S. Berigan's nickname was "Bunny" and he was mostly known for one outstanding song, "I Can't Get Started," written by Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke, a composition that he turned into a hit record in 1937.

The lyrics to "I Can't Get Started" are definitely dated. They reference the Spanish Civil War, FDR, and Greta Garbo but its story still resonates today. It's about a man who lists all of his many nearly impossible accomplishments yet has failed at the one thing he wants most: winning the girl of his dreams. (The great Temptations' hit of the late 60s, "I Can't Get Next To You," has a very similar subject). Berigan was just an adequate singer but his vocals were good enough to get the job done on the song that became his band's theme. However, the highlight of the record is Berigan's trumpet playing. His loud, full-bodied tone resonates with the listener and his solo that closes out this classic jazz ballad is outstanding. If only we could hear Berigan play in a modern day setting with digital technology that would really bring out his best qualities!

The song has appeared in movies (Save the Tiger and Chinatown) and has been covered many, many times, but none of the later versions possessed the staying power of the bandleader's original.

While Berigan led his own outfit for about three years in the late 30s it was never really successful, especially when compared to the giants of the era. The trumpeter also served as a sideman for both Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and he played on Glenn Miller's first ever band recording. Louie Armstrong was a fan too.

Sadly, Berigan was an incurable alcoholic and he succumbed to liver disease in 1942 at the age of 33. The pressures of running his own band only made his addiction worse. Unfortunately, he never became as famous as most of his contemporaries because he left us so young and, while he was far more than a one hit wonder, most people who are familiar with him only know this one classic trumpet tune that you can listen to here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly has been on my mind recently due to a co-worker who went to see Buddy, the stage musical currently playing in Philadelphia about the protagonist's life and music.

In the early 80s, when records still outsold CDs, my wife gave me a hefty, six LP box called The Complete Buddy Holly, as a present. It was a set I actually asked for, but in the end, for some reason I never played more than a smattering of its tracks. While I’ve always been aware of Holly and his achievements he and his band have always been relegated to the back of my mind while I concentrated on other musical fare. Recently, with his name and fame resurfacing in our town I decided to dig a little deeper into his catalog beyond the hits that we all know.

Before Holly most of rock n' roll's inventors were solo performers, not bands. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were pianists steeped in controversy. Both were excellent but neither had Holly's eclectic composing skills. The biggest star of the group, Elvis Presley, was a fabulous vocal interpreter of other people's songs. (Did he ever play that guitar or was it just a prop)? Bill Haley and The Comets were neither composers nor trailblazers. Carl Perkins got derailed by a bad car accident and is mostly known for one song. Chuck Berry was different. His legacy is as strong as Holly's, perhaps because he also played rock's premier instrument and wrote his own material. He's also responsible for some of the most famous and greatest guitar riffs in history.

The Beatles deservedly get tremendous credit for saving rock n' roll after the men who initially brought it into the world either self-destructed or burned out. Among their great contributions were popularizing the template for the standard rock band lineup of two guitars featuring a prominent rhythm player, bass, and drums that Holly used years earlier. Unusually, The Beatles were also a completely autonomous unit who wrote, sang, played, arranged, and produced their own records. After their meteoric rise to become kings of the mountain, a throne they never relinquished at anytime during their career, no rock band worthy of mention was ever allowed to do things differently. If you didn't compose your own songs you were nowhere, man.

However, even though the Liverpool quartet may have carved in stone the commandments that rock outfits everywhere would soon follow for generations to come, much of what they did came straight from Holly (a man they believed to be God). He and The Crickets were already accomplished at doing things The Beatles were so well-respected for while the latter were still The Quarrymen. Holly wrote his own music and the band also had a hand in the arranging and production. His work was the most sophisticated rock music released up to that point. On "Words of Love" Holly was an early user of double-tracked lead vocals (a technique the Beatles later used extensively). He is also credited with introducing the Fender Stratocaster to England where his popularity even outpaced his fame here at home.

Ask any rocker who was part of the original British invasion and they will tell you how important Holly was. John Lennon and Paul McCartney readily acknowledged that The Beatles were modeled after The Crickets, right down to their group's name. Graham Nash and his mates named their band after him and Keith Richards was a fan too.

So, what is the point of this article? In their pre-Ed Sullivan years The Beatles were more followers than the innovators people believed them to be. I'm not here to discredit their contributions to rock because their importance was insanely huge and they still stand out as the most significant band ever. Instead, it's time to ask people to dig deeper into both Holly's music and the story behind it in order to understand the power he had over almost all rockers who came of age after his short time in the spotlight. Many of rock's basic components began in Lubbock, Texas (Holly's hometown) and Clovis, New Mexico (where producer Norman Petty brought the band to record). It's safe to say rock as we know it may not exist without the nerdy looking young man in the huge glasses.

Holly's career lasted only a year and a half. The man accomplished so much it's hard to believe he was only twenty–two years old when he died.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Explorer's Club - Grand Hotel (2012)

When I first heard The Explorers Club they sounded just like a Beach Boys tribute band so I decided that I shouldn't bother with them because the originals were always the best in the world at what they did. However, a closer listen will tell you that this talented quintet are what the Wilsons, Love, Jardine, and Johnston could have been all these years if they hadn't allowed their boatload of personal and business problems to get in the way of the music.

The Charleston, SC band has just released their second full length CD, Grand Hotel, and it's better than every studio record The Beach Boys released after Holland in 1973. This indie band's music is straight out of their heroes' post-surfing, mid-to-late 60s years. All fifteen tracks are originals co-written by primary lead singer Jason Brewer. It's an album the Hall of Famers should have made, but never did, so The Explorers Club are only a tribute band because of their obvious love of the much older, famous Californians and not because they play their idols' work.

Lyrically, The Club's songs are not intricate but they are not juvenile either (meaning they're not writing songs about drag racing, riding the waves, and girls on the beach while old enough to collect Social Security checks). Musically, their arrangements are neither as sophisticated nor as eccentric as Brian Wilson's best work. Instead, they offer up a lighthearted version of the sunny Southern California sound the time period was known for.

The album opens with an instrumental track, "Acapulco (Sunrise)," that is loaded with flutes and percussion sounds stolen from the title track from Pet Sounds. "Weight of the World" has an introduction that is a dead ringer for an old Dionne Warwick song. "Run Run Run" opens with a theme that sounds like music from an old 60s TV show. There is even one song, "Summer Days, Summer Nights," with the same name as a 1965 Beach Boys album. The title track is another instrumental reminiscent of Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass.

The album was produced by Mark Linnett, The Beach Boys sound engineer, who obviously knows something about how to get the most out of bands like The Explorers Club.

You don't have to love The Beach Boys to fully appreciate Grand Hotel but it sure helps.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Pogues - If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1987), Expanded Version (2006)

Until "Death to My Hometown" the very Irish flavored track from Bruce Springsteen's latest CD, Wrecking Ball, you could say that he sounded nothing like The Pogues. I'm sure The Boss didn't have that great Celtic-rock band in mind when he wrote and recorded the song but its resemblance in spirit, if not in sound, to Shane McGowan’s famous group is uncanny. The folk-punkers do what Springsteen has always done so well over the years and that's what makes The Pogues third CD, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, (1987) one of the outstanding Celtic-rock sets of all time.

This Emerald Isle classic is traditional in a lot of ways. It's full of tin whistles, acoustic guitars, banjos, and accordions. Also, McGowan's long history with drugs and alcohol that resulted in his firing from the band just a couple of years after this album was released undoubtedly influenced the music as well. Unfortunately, it also perpetuated a sad Irish stereotype.

Yet, even though McGowan looks like someone who couldn't possibly have a deep thought in his head he and his mates prove you can combine streetwise rowdiness with an understanding of human nature. The two best examples of this are the title track and the Christmas tune, "Fairytale of New York" in which the lead singer and the late Kirsty MacColl tell the tale of an unfortunate soul locked in the drunk tank for the holiday. In 2004 it was voted the best Christmas song of all time in a poll conducted by VH1 UK.

The songs aren't all pointedly Irish. On both "Fiesta" and one of the bonus tracks, a cover of "Sketches of Spain," the band throws in some mariachi music and, as its title suggests, "Turkish Song of The Damned" has a definite Mideastern vibe. A little bit of Jerry Lee Lewis, rockabilly style piano and a smidgen of jazz support the instrumental, "Metropolis."

The currently available expanded version (released in 2006) is nineteen tracks long and two of the extras feature the folk band The Irish Rovers (remember the hit song from the 60s, "The Unicorn"?) who assist nicely on "The Irish Rover" and "Mountain Dew."

Lead singer McGowan is a strong lyricist and he often surrounds his intelligent words in a bed of super fast tempos. Some listeners may believe that the high octane arrangements get in the way of the message but, as it turns out, the exact opposite is true. The exuberance of The Pogues music sucks you in first and then, after they have earned your attention, it's just an easy baby step before their lyrics catch hold of your brain too. To prove the point, how many albums with a serious title such as this one could double as a party album you can sing along to at your Saturday night beer bash? Ask the man from Asbury Park. He knows.