Talk From The Rock Room: February 2020

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Now Playing: The Kinks - The Forgotten Sides - 'It's Really Good to See You Rocking Out'

Positively the most underrated of the major 1960s British rock bands, the Kinks catalog continues to reveal inspiring melodies, revolutionary lyrics and clandestine musical magic.
Unfortunately, the Kinks’ deep wealth of compositional genius was often missed even when served on the veritable silver platter of a single release. They remained respected by their contemporaries but often obscured by the ignorance of critical analysis. Here are five such overlooked U.S./UK Kinks singles, all of which should be recognized as “klassics” in the Kinks songbook …

“SLEEPWALKER,” (1977): Only Ray Davies could take such creepy stalker content and package it into a bounding syncopated musical bundle. It’s a shame that this song, the title track off of 1977’s Sleepwalker is not recognized as a classic — excepting ardent followers of the Kinks. The song barely slipped into the U.S. Top 50, before quickly before disappearing into the shadows. The crisp drum introduction, anything but sleepy, is quickly blanketed by orchestrated Kink guitars and perfectly popping and contrasting Ray Davies vocals.

“WONDERBOY,” (1968): Soaked with the aesthetic of the Kinks’ contemporaneous Village Green Preservation Society, “Wonderboy” was apparently lauded by John Lennon — but yet still missed by the listening public at large. The song spins like a psychedelic music-hall show tune, containing airy “la-la” backing vocals, jack-in-the-box piano and harpsichord coloring. Davies’ wry vocal approach underlies the positive lyrical directive and breezy overlapping melodies. Definitely a song of its time, the tune retains its attractiveness and influence even after 40-plus years.

[WISH I COULD FLY LIKE] SUPERMAN,” (1979): This disco-based single soars in on splashy drums, thick skyscraper bass and the addictive mantra of Dave Davies’ rhythmic and muted guitar trills. An attempt to stay relevant in the messy musical climate of the late 1970s, the Kinks were successful — using a then-contemporary approach that combined distorted guitars with a pulsing mirror-ball groove. Davies’ lyrical content in the song is, as always, a unique glimpse into the psyche of a man wishing to be. The song tugged the public’s cape briefly, but made only a brief appearance in the U.S. charts — only to be found on the dusty shelves of record collections and cut out bins.

“MONEY TALKS,” (1974): Gritty, fuzzy and inflated with fat horns, “Money Talks” is a swinging, bubbly tonic, especially for listeners starved for straight rock with no chaser. Tucked away on Preservation Act 2, one of the Kinks most criticized albums of the 1970s, “Money Talks” cashed out early with barely a search of the pockets by the public. Still, irresistible Davies bothers harmonies are intermingled with female backing vocalists in a bombastic and assertive diatribe about the evils and troubles associated with cash.

“BETTER THINGS,” (1981): A song that once again enjoyed only moderate success on both sides of the Atlantic, this remains an anthem of endless possibility and hopefulness. Much later, “Better Things” gain belated recognition when unearthed by Ray Davies and Bruce Springsteen for the 2012 tribute album to Davies, See My Friends. The original version begins with a percussive piano, then expands into a motion-picture soundtrack of positivity and glory — a trait sorely missing from current rock compositions. Davies’ vocals quake and shake, the hopefulness of the song stained with the emotion of loss that often accompanies the best wishes for a long time friend.
The above tracks are just a small example of the depth and strength of the Kinks Katalog. While not always lighting up the charts the quality of even their most clandestine kuts never wavered. I hope you enjoy a few of the tracks that bobbed just below the surface of the mainstream but are nonetheless some of their finest moments committed to tape.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Now Playing: The Worst Songs of the Grateful Dead - "If You Ask Me Like I Know You Wont"

Today’s edition of Talk from the Rock Room, may cause a bit of a stir. Over the course of 30 years, 13 studio albums, and countless live releases and compilations, the Grateful Dead curated an impressive and deep collection of original compositions composed by Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter and other band members. Along the way, they also nurtured and developed one of the most rabid fan bases in all of rock; one brimming with intrepid travelers, musical jesters and Dead statisticians.

Like any band with that kind of longevity and success, there have been some musical blunders along the way. Whether it is an error in creative judgment or a miss in the quality control department, these revealing moments of weakness by the band can make their fans appreciate them even more in their fallibility. With such a depth of quality tunes and improvisational magic at their disposal, we will allow the band these few instances of missing their musical mark. This list is no way definitive, only a starting point to explore the strangest and perhaps weakest corners of the Grateful Dead’s catalog….

“FRANCE,”(SHAKEDOWN STREET, 1978): This number is someone’s favorite song somewhere, but the banal lyrics and at-the-time contemporary disco production (talking to you Lowell George!) give the track a sterile MOR feel that the Dead constantly tried to avoid. Bob Weir gets to fulfill his slick rock-star fantasies, but it’s hard to believe this is the same band that created Live/Dead. Co-writer Mickey Hart’s enthusiastic steel drums and the groovy instrumental fadeout are not enough to save this one from the circular file.

“KEEP YOUR DAY JOB,”(concert performances, 1982-86): A Hunter/Garcia song that was eventually removed from the band’s set lists at the request and angst of their fans, “Day Job” would allow the band to flex their rock and roll muscles if played well, but not much more. Deadheads took the not-so-cloak-and-dagger advice of the song to heart and considered it an unneeded buzz kill when performed live in concert. The combination of a precarious melody previously mined on “US Blues” and below average lyrics made this song disappear after only 50 performances.

“TIL THE MORNING COMES,” (AMERICAN BEAUTY, 1970): Nebulous and uncharacteristically juvenile rhyming couplets are one of the issues with the one weak track from American Beauty. What sounds like a stale Crosby Stills and Nash reject must not have set well with the band as they performed it only a few times in concert, probably based on the difficulty in replicating the three-part harmonies. Taken in the context of the classic songs making up American Beauty, the song feels out of place because of its cardboard cutout construction that no other track on the album has. It’s not that this song is totally horrible, but more of a reflection of the powerful and classic songs that surround it.

“SAMBA IN THE RAIN”(concert performances, 1994-95): While it took years for Brent Mydland’s compositions to make second-set status with the Grateful Dead, Vince Welnick’s numbers were often featured in the band’s last two years of existence. “Samba in the Rain,” however, was often too soaked and bloated to fly, as it seemed the melody was not strong enough to inspire — not to mention that it seemed some band members never bothered to properly learn the song. Welnick’s festive on-mic asides and childish exclamations were often uncomfortable and unneeded, contributing to the sinking feeling of the track.

“WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE,”(IN THE DARK, 1987): When compared to other Hunter/Garcia creations from the same era, this track is a weak facsimile of past glories that most if not all contained stronger melodic ideas. The song had a short shelf life as it was retired from the stage after 1989, having more success as LP filler. The bland repetition of the melody and unconvincing studio reading add up to making this number just another song.

While it seems strange to call this list definitive, what it truly does express is how strong the Grateful Dead’s repertoire was while developed over 30 years. Astonishingly enough, the collected songs of that era are still paying dividends as countless numbers of former members and a humorous amount cover bands still dip deeply into the well of Garcia/Hunter, Weir/Barlow and other band member writes and co-writes. Their catalog speaks for itself and we will forgive or even enjoy a few of the missteps along the way.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Michael Bloomfield – Live at the Old Waldorf - 'Guitar King'

Pulled off the CD shelves in the ‘rock room’ today is a curated 1998 CD release of Michael Bloomfield and Friends titled Live at the Old Waldorf. The collection is pulled from varying performances by Bloomfield and his various associates held in the San Francisco (except for the first track) area throughout the 1970’s. By the mid 1970’s Mike Bloomfield had returned to his penchant for playing clubs, jukes, and small theaters close to wherever his transient bones decided to call home. A true bluesman, all Bloomfield needed was his guitar and the clothes on his back. He had touched international fame and was known as one of the best guitarist’s in the world, but his only love was playing the blues. Michael would rather play for a small crowd of appreciative blues fans than an arena full of ticket buyers. Dating back to his decline of joining Bob Dylan’s band in 1965, Bloomfield wanted things on his terms. He was a purist and stayed true to his beliefs and the blues. Playing venues close to home became Michael’s M.O. toward the last years of his life, but these venues also highlight his most loose and honest playing. While drugs would also initiate Michael's defection from fame so would his personality traits and his life long battle with insomnia. When Bloomers was on, there was no one better. While the ‘rock room’ feels the aforementioned collection is wonderful, it is a shame it has not or could not have been expanded on.

The CD begins with the one track that is an outlier, a blues medley hailing from a ‘Record Plant’ session in Sausalito, CA on November 10, 1974. The medley is comprised of ‘Sweet Little Angel” and “Jelly Jelly”. Backed with his usual cohorts, Barry Goldberg and Mark Naftalin on organ and piano respectively, Bloomfield’s band here also assembles Roger Troy on bass and vocals, George Rains on drums and Mark Adams on blues harp. Bloomfield opens the track sword drawn for a beautiful opening duel with Naftalin. Troy asks for ‘one more’ round the changes prior to the vocals to which Bloomfield answers with a searing series of lyrics. Jelly Roll Troy, feels it and is kneeling in front of his ‘Sweet Little Angel” waiting for her to spread her wings. The first break features Adams harp blowing a soft beg to which Bloomfield tastefully trills. Mike then peels off layer upon layer of licks, hitting up on a classic climb up the next reminiscent of the central riff of, ‘The Same Thing” that pushes the band to take off. Once Troy quotes ‘Jelly, Jelly’ the band corners into a substantial Chicago swing. Off mic hollers of excitement are heard and Bloomfield soars up the neck gloriously. The band congeals into a hard blues orchestra moving collaboratively in one big sound.

‘Feel So Bad’, a stellar Lightning Hopkins cover begins on a watery ascending slide lick and a pulsing yet gentle funking groove. Here the four piece line up is Bloomfield, Naftalin, Troy and Bob Jones on drums and vocal duties. A delectable vamp is entered as this selection from March 14, 1977 plays out. The rest of the selections to follow ‘Feel So Bad’ all hail from the Old Waldorf. Bloomfield plays an endless waterfall of shimmering slide work under Jones vocals that reaches the first break where he locks in. Mike takes multiple rounds of dizzying slide work here underpinned by Naftalin’s thumping keys. The ‘rock room’ has an affinity for this cut and asserts it’s one of the best of the collection.
A sinister reading of the Nick Gravenites (who also sings) original ‘Bad Luck Baby’ hailing from May of 77 follows and brings a sludgy foreboding to the proceedings. Bloomfield keeps the slide on his digit and draws in dark black inky lines. Under the vocals and on top of the chugging rhythm section Michael squiggles and squawks a stunning mid song solo spot. This is Bloomfield unchained from the porch and going after it. Naftalin plays some honky keys as a bed, but its Bloomfield’s steely strings that lend the evil to Gravenites hearty vocals.

A blues standard, Elmore James ‘The Sky Is Cryin’ continues the heat of Bloomfield’s slide playing while he pays tribute the slide master. Coming from the same performance as ‘Bad Luck Baby’ Bloomfield is on and here his playing over the intro drips down windows in big delicious drops as the musical storm gathers. After who I believe to be Bob Jones singing the first verse, Bloomfield loses the slide and fingers some absolutely burning counter riffs to the verse melody. The sky then opens up in a torrent as Michael briskly unleashes a watery vibrato filled solo that in my mind only cements the fact that this guy had to be from another planet.

‘Dancin Fool’ follows, a contagious 12 bar shuffle composed by Nick Gravenites. The cut is another welcome opportunity to swing with Michael on slippery slide. This cut comes from February of 1977 and heats up quickly as the ass shaking wiggles away the blues. Honky tonk black and whites press hips with Bloomers resplendent soloing. Gravenites free forms some burly vocals, but once again just as Bloomfield turns on the gas the track fades to black.

Another ‘rock room’ highlight comes next while helping to take the sting out of the previous songs early fade. “Buried Alive in the Blues’, another Gravenites composition, is also known as a track Janis Joplin had planned for her final LP Pearl, but unfortunately passed away before she could lay down her vocals. The song was left on the album as an instrumental tribute to Joplin. Here in late 1976 it is given a gruff and funky reading with Bloomers slide work again being a focal point. Like a hand reaching through the mud piled on a fresh grave, Bloomfield breaks through the gritty melody with frisky counter licks during the verses, before singing a beautifully sliver solo that shines warm rays of sun across the musical soil. As the heads toward its conclusion Bloomfield contributes a series horny counter melodies to Gravenites scatting.

The famed ‘Further on up the Road’ gets a substantial reading next. Played by a multitude of players ranging from jukes to arenas, this blues shuffle is always a welcome appearance in live set lists. Michael forgoes his slide here for some straight up fingering. Stringy and stellar, Bloomfield illustrates through the blues changes his encyclopedic knowledge, quoting Chuck Berry, Albert King blended with his own distinctive fingerprint. Brisk and brief, this three minute rendition flames like a sparkler then concludes.
The next to last track on the album hails from December 19, 1976 being a straight up, no chaser blues. ‘Your Friends’ writing credit is given to Deadric Malone (music publisher Don Robey), but this is debatable as back in the day writing credits were sketchy, often given to  producers, DJ’s, or management. Regardless, this straight up beer light and pool table blues is played by the four piece of Bloomfield, Naftalin, Troy, and Roger Jones. Alley dark and street lady loose, ‘Your Friend’s becomes a clinic, with rattling keys and switchblade string bending by Bloomers.

A Nick Gravenites original concludes the album with ‘Bye Bye’. Coming from the same run of shows as the stellar ‘Feel So Bad’ in 1977. Built upon a rolling and tumbling tom-tom groove, and a jive rhythm ‘Bye Bye’ again spotlights a stunning Bloomfield slide clinic, a plethora of sterling blues work is drizzled over the syncopated rhythm.  The faucet is on full for Bloomers but for some reason the track fades before its natural conclusion. Ugh, I guess in this case we take the good with the bad.

The 1998 compact disc release of Michael Bloomfield Live at the Old Waldorf is both stunning and frustrating. What makes it amazing is the aural documentation of Bloomfield in a time where he had purposely taken a lower profile. On the flip side of that coin is the editing decisions and quick fades are disappointing. Seeing that the release is now over 20 years old it does not appear that we could get a complete release from one of the shows or alternatively a deluxe edition. But, what is available is fine, Bloomfield is focused and crisp and his ‘friends’ are fully invested in the jams. Thankfully, up through current times Bloomfield’s playing is still respected, influential and looked to for an example of how to play real prime guitar blues. Toward the conclusion of his life Michael became what he always wanted be, a straight up ‘blues man’, and we are the lucky recipients of his success in meeting his goal.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Take One: Eddie Cochran – The 1958 Single “C’mon Everybody” – ‘You Can’t Sit Still’

Currently jamming in the ‘rock room’ is a highly influential early ‘rock and roll’ classic. Nobody encapsulated the angst and attitude of the ‘rockers’ in the late 1950’s more than rockabilly and guitar legend Eddie Cochran. The perfectly dressed guitar wielding ladies’ man was also adept at guitar, bass, drums, and piano and was one of the first musicians to dabble in multitrack recording. What is even more amazing is that Cochran accomplished his popularity all before the age of 21. This guy was a rocker before it was fashionable; he wore makeup, composed music, lived fast and died young. His songs have become the head cornerstones of rock, and his wide ranging influence touching the “Beatles, “Kinks”, “Who”, “White Stripes”, “Springsteen”, “Van Halen”  and a host of other musicians too numerous to name.  The famed cuts, “Twenty Flight Rock”, “Somethin Else” and the subject of this rock rant, “C’mon Everybody” still retain the power and grace from the day they were birthed. As an addendum, not that it matters, but for those who dig this sort of thing, Rolling Stone listed “C’mon Everybody” as #403 on the list of their top 500 rock and roll songs.

Filling the huge void left behind in rock music by Elvis Presley joining the military, in more ways than one Cochran may have been a bit more Elvis than the king was. “C’mon Everybody” originally appeared as the ‘B’ side to “Don’t Ever Let Me Go” on Liberty single F51166 released in October 1958. The song was composed by Cochran and Jerry Capehart who also co-write “Summertime Blues” with Eddie. Between March 1957 and August 1959 Cochran had seven Top 100 records; one of his biggest smashes being the aforementioned "Summertime Blues", which peaked at #8 {for 1 week} on September 29th, 1958. “C’mon Everybody” upon its release peaked in the UK at #6 and in the US at #35. Posthumously the song became a towering influence on the next generation of UK and US musicians who were coming of age during ‘rock’s’ formative years. Groups of note who covered the song include ‘Humble Pie’, Sex Pistols and Led Zeppelin. Cochran was also a major influence on the musical approach of ‘The Who’ in both style and groove.

‘C’mon Everybody’ plays like a tightly wound pack of explosives, a silvery spaceship trailing across the conservative musical night sky of the late 1950’s. Lasting just under two minutes, there is a lot of excitement in a small package. The song opens with a jittery popcorn crack of bass and a closely following thumping tic toc drum groove supported by tambourine. Cochran’s lush acoustic brush strokes enter and lather colored chord changes over the sensual rhythm.
The collaboration of instruments is delicious, with Cochran’s cavernous vocals rhythmically dueling with the crisp snare strikes and syncopated bass strikes. Lyrically the song is an invitation to adolescents of the era to let loose and party. A perfect example of why ‘rock and roll’ was such a threat to the adults of the period, as well as why rock/rockabilly was such an integral part of the artistic revolution and expression of teen angst that would peak by the mid to late 1960’s.

The track doesn’t contain a wild guitar solo, nor does it need to. Just raw emotion, an ass shaking groove and an invitation to everybody to get it on while they can. It is sometimes difficult to understand the importance of song, books, or paintings in the context of history, especially through the thick mists and faded memories of time. The ‘rock room’ sometimes contemplates what were the reactions of art created during times of change and upheaval? What did these hypothetical artistic creations change or affect, if anything? Regardless, in the case of “C’mon Everybody”, similarly to Berry, Perkins, Cash and Presley the music being created was simply a way to avoid the often difficult life their families had lived as well as a way into their own creative minds. The music instituted change both internally and externally and offered escape for both the creator and recipients.

Back to the song at hand, the beat starts and stops like a pimped out caddy in heavy traffic. Cochran’s vocals elicits other singers of the time but contains his own unique rasp and earnest sentiment. The verses focus on Eddie’s vocals with his guitar strings palm muted and the substantial harp like guitar strums returning with each “C’mon Everybody” statement. The song runs through the changes breathlessly, leaving only cigarette smoke behind. Following the final verse Cochran sums up the fun being had in the tune with:

Well we'll really have a party but we gotta put a guard outside
If the folks come home I'm afraid they're gonna have my hide
They'll be no more movies for a week or two
No more runnin' round with the usual crew
Who cares, c'mon everybody!”

Unfortunately only a year and a half after the release of “C’mon Everybody” Cochran would die in a tragic car accident in the UK. Not unlike his contemporaries, Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, Cochran’s talent would be grounded before reaching proper cruising altitude. 
What cannot be denied nor understated is he influence of “C’mon Everybody” on rock music then or now. It may be stating the obvious, but the song sounds as fresh and vital as it did in 1958 and its sonic’s have the same effect on the body and mind, at least in the ‘rock room’! The live version I have included here from Hadley’s Town Hall Party 1959, is absolutely insane. While the single version is amazing, and the focus of this rant, the live version quivers with a kinetic energy. Cochran plays his signature Gretsch G 6120 electric hollow body, there is a jingle jangle piano with a heavy left hand not audible on the studio recording, and the rhythm section has filled up with high octane. Cochran shimmies and shakes, while throwing his shoulder into each verse. Gone in a blink of an eye, just like Cochran this black and white live cut will leave historians of rock wondering what could have been.