Sitting back trying to recapture old days

It’s “lost classics” time again, as I take another deep dive into albums and singles from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

There was so much great music made back then, and only a fraction of it ever ended up on the radio or the top reaches of the sales charts.  The rest went under the radar of most record_collection_672_x_377_1024x1024folks.  Hack’s Back Pages is here to remedy that situation.

I find it a labor of love to listen to my LPs and CDs from days of yore, searching to find lost classic songs that you may have forgotten all about, or perhaps have never heard until I brought them out into the light to savor now for the first time.

As I customarily do, I have provided a playlist via Spotify so you can hear the songs as you read about them.  I hope you enjoy them!

Rock on!

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“The Nightfly,” Donald Fagen, 1982

Donald_Fagen_-_The_Nightfly-1Steely Dan went on hiatus after their seventh LP, 1980’s “Gaucho,” primarily because co-founder Walter Becker was struggling with personal issues.  His partner Donald Fagen stayed busy writing a cycle of songs that paid tribute to his recollections of growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s.  The album, “The Nightfly,” sounds every bit like a Steely Dan record, thanks to Fagen’s vocals and jazz-pop arrangements, and it earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year.  The single, “I.G.Y.,” reached #26.  I’ve always enjoyed the title track, which centers on Fagen’s memories of a hip disc jockey at an all-night jazz station he used to listen to when he found rock ‘n roll had become too repetitive:  “An independent station, WJAZ, with jazz and conversation from the foot of Mt. Belzoni, sweet music, tonight the night is mine, late line till the sun comes through the skylight…”

“Tenderness on the Block,” Warren Zevon, 1978

LLZevon was highly praised as a songwriter of strange, macabre pop songs with deadpan humorous lyrics, and when he teamed up with L.A. wonder boy Jackson Browne in 1978 on his major-label debut, “Excitable Boy,” the result was both commercial success and critical acclaim.  “Werewolves of London” and the title track may have received most of the airplay, but I found tracks like “Tenderness on the Block” (co-written by Browne) the most appealing.  Savvy lyrics about a teenage girl trying to find her way in a challenging world make it one of the standout tracks in Zevon’s catalog:  “She’s all grown up, she has a young man waiting, she was wide-eyed, now she’s street-wise to the lies and the jive talk, she’ll find true love and tenderness on the block …”

“Take It As It Comes,” The Doors, 1967

220px-TheDoorsTheDoorsalbumcoverThere are very few bands in the history of rock who came exploding out of the blocks with a masterpiece on their very first try, and The Doors are one of them.  In addition to the anthemic  “Light My Fire” and the ferocious “Break On Through (To The Other Side),” the album runneth over with one great song after another:  “The Crystal Ship,” “Back Door Man,” “20th Century Fox,” “Soul Kitchen” and the terrifying finale “The End.”  Easily overlooked is the penultimate track, “Take It As It Comes,” with Jim Morrison’s vocals alternately sweet on the verses and fierce on the choruses.  Keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore (and an uncredited Larry Knechtel on bass) played like a tightly oiled machine on this and every track.

“Lovers’ Day,” ‘Til Tuesday, 1986

51x216Uff6L._SY355_One of the best songwriters of the ’80s/’90s was Aimee Mann, who spearheaded the alternative rock band ‘Til Tuesday through the 1985-1989 period before she went solo.  The band won Best New Artist at the MTV awards in 1986 on the strength of their #8 hit “Voices Carry.”  On the group’s second LP, the excellent “Welcome Home,” Mann wrote several songs that veered more toward mainstream pop (“Coming Up Close,” “Will She Just Fall Down”).  One track, the mesmerizing “Lovers’ Day,” harkened back to the New Wave-ish debut LP, with lyrics that drove home the reality that “there’s no way to betray and still be true.”

“Supertwister,” Camel, 1974

192562094198-cover-zoomThis British progressive rock group, which dabbled in rock, folk, jazz and classical, played largely instrumental songs written by guitarist Andrew Latimer and keyboardist Peter Bardens.  The group never caught on much in the US, but English fans loved them, putting six of Camel’s first eight LPs into the Top 40 on the UK album charts, beginning with 1975’s impressive “The Snow Goose.”  Just before that LP came “Mirage,” which was very popular on West Coast FM stations.  One lively track, “Supertwister,” offers some dazzling flute work by Latimer that’s reminiscent of mid-’70s-era Jethro Tull.

“Trouble Man,” Marvin Gaye, 1972

marvingaye_troubleman12_89taWhen Marvin Gaye’s name comes up, many people gravitate to the many outstanding hits he churned out as a leader of Motown Records’ stable of recording artists in the 1960s, tracks like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” and duets like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “It Takes Two.”  Others linger on Gaye’s brilliant early ’70s anthems like “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me.”  Sometimes forgotten is a track like 1972’s “Trouble Man,” a dreamy piece written and recorded by Gaye for the somewhat cheesy crime drama film of the same name.  The song actually charted well, reaching #7 in early 1973, but you don’t hear it much anymore.  Until now.

“Train in the Distance,” Paul Simon, 1983

R-3188782-1319723769.jpegFollowing the unqualified success of the 1981 reunion event, “Simon & Garfunkel:  The Concert in Central Park,” the duo headed into the studio to collaborate on a new S&G studio LP, their first since 1970’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  Garfunkel provided vocal harmonies to a handful of tracks before the duo had an acrimonious split (again), and Simon went on to develop ten songs as his next solo album, 1983’s “Hearts and Bones.”  A favorite from this mostly overlooked Simon project is “Train in the Distance,” one of three songs that delve into Simon’s short, stormy marriage to actress Carrie Fisher:  “Two disappointed believers, two people playing the game, negotiations and love songs are often mistaken for one in the same, everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, everybody thinks it’s true…”

“King of Hollywood,” The Eagles, 1979

220px-The_Eagles_The_Long_RunComing up with a worthy follow-up to the mega-success of “Hotel California” proved an arduous task for The Eagles, particularly songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey.  They admitted that tour burnout and excessive coke use brought on a case of writer’s block that delayed recording sessions for many months.  Perhaps the best track that emerged on the final product, 1979’s “The Long Run,” was the Henley-Frey collaboration “King of Hollywood,” which criticized movie and record producers for their demands for sexual favors from struggling actresses and artists.  This one could’ve been about Harvey Weinstein:  “Now look at me and tell me, darlin’, how badly do you want this part?  Are you willing to sacrifice? And are you willing to be real nice? All your talent and my good taste, I’d hate to see it go to waste…”

“Fat Lip,” Robert Plant, 1982

1200x1200bbAll eyes were on Plant when he made his solo debut on the first post-Led Zeppelin album, “Pictures at Eleven,” in 1982.  Guitarist Robbie Blunt had big shoes to fill, and he contributed admirably with strong guitar riffs and helped Plant write the bulk of the songs.  The singles released from the album — “Burning Down One Side” and “Pledge Pin” — fared well on US Mainstream Rock stations but stiffed on the pop charts.  I think the better choice would’ve been “Fat Lip,” which offers an almost pop sensibility set against some Zep-like vocal acrobatics from Plant.

“Michelle’s Song,” Elton John, 1971

41LdDSwOU2LThe prolific songwriting team of lyricist Bernie Taupin and Elton John cranked out several dozen great songs in their early years together, most of which turned up on Elton’s debut LP (1969’s “Empty Sky”), the phenomenal “Elton John” album and the concept LP “Tumbleweed Connection,” both in 1970.  During that period, John and Taupin had also agreed to write songs for an obscure little French film called “Friends,” about a young pair of neglected teens who ran away to the French countryside, had a baby and attempted to start a life together.  The title song “Friends” was a minor hit with a wonderful sentiment (“If your friends are there, then everything’s all right”), but another tune from the film soundtrack I have always loved is “Michelle’s Song,” with a gorgeous melody line and a chorus that soars.

“The Lee Shore,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1971

913m0mfP6AL._SL1425_Following the March 1970 release of “Deja Vu,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were pretty much the hottest band in the country, with hits like “Teach Your Children” and the ripped-from-the-headlines “Ohio” on the charts as they toured the land.  Sadly, their egos and jealousies proved to be insurmountable obstacles, and they broke up only three months later.  In the fall of 1971, Atlantic Records released “Four-Way Street,” a double live album of acoustic and electric performances culled from that shortened tour.  Some tracks exposed how ragged their harmonies could be in a concert setting, but others were true diamonds in the rough.  The best, I think, is Crosby’s stunning, previously unreleased “The Lee Shore,” with just Crosby and Nash weaving a delicate harmonic web.

“Light Shine,” Jesse Colin Young, 1974

R-9281118-1477867152-2367.jpegIn the late ’60s, Jesse Colin Young and Jerry Corbitt co-founded The Youngbloods, a folk rock act that had success with the Chet Powers song “Get Together” (“Come on people now, smile on your brother…”) which became a bellwether of the Woodstock generation.  Young soon went solo and established himself as a superior songwriter and arranger of light pop/jazz tunes like “Ridgetop,” “California Child” and “Songbird.”  The title song from Young’s 1974 LP “Light Shine” picks up where “Get Together” left off, radiating positive vibes with lyrics that encourage peace, kindness and love:  “We all got a light inside, people how can we survive if we don’t let it shine on all night and day, you know the world is dark with fear, people scared to let you near, they need you to shine on, shine on all day…”

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Hey dude, don’t make it bad

The premise is preposterous, but intriguing.

There’s a film out there at the moment called “Yesterday” that asks us to suspend our disbelief something fierce.  We’re supposed to go along with the fantastical notion that a struggling young musician who is hit by a bus during a 12-second worldwide blackout regains consciousness and discovers that no one except him has ever heard of The Beatles nor their legendary catalog of songs.

Okay, folks, I gotta say:  For me, this is a bridge too far.

Ever since February 9, 1964, when The Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and upended my world, I confess that I have been obsessed with this incredible band, and more to the point, their music.

I bought all their albums (sometimes more than once), saw all their movies and learned how to play many of their songs on guitar.  After their breakup in 1970, I followed their solo careers, but with far less enthusiasm because, frankly, their solo work simply wasn’t IMG_1859as good (with a few exceptions).  Instead, I found myself going back to The Beatles’ catalog over and over and over again.

I attended performances of “Beatlemania on Tour” in 1979-80; I bought and devoured many books about the band, particularly “The Beatles Recording Sessions,” with its detailed account of every single studio session; I watched, and bought on DVD, “The Beatles Anthology,” the official documentary of the group, and the three 2-CD packages of alternate takes and unreleased rarities; and I bought, again, all the original albums in CD format, and the remastered versions, and the Cirque du Soleil “Love” soundtrack.

Ask my friends and family, and they’ll wholeheartedly agree I am pretty much a walking encyclopedia of all things related to The Beatles’ music and career.

So the idea of a movie based on the idea that the group never existed is, for me, rather impossible to swallow.  And yet, the plot of “Yesterday” hinges on that contrivance.

Hmmmm.

Okay, I thought, I’ll go along with this, just to see how badly they screw it up.

To my surprise and delight, I found the movie charming, clever, quite funny in parts, Unknown-39bittersweet in others.  It’s essentially just a simple love story, using Beatles tunes to advance the tale of two 20somethings who eventually find their way to each other.

All you need is love, indeed.

If you’re looking for a logical treatise, you won’t find it here.  For instance:  Are they saying Lennon and McCartney never met?  And if they hadn’t, wouldn’t they have each written, on their own, some of the songs we know as Beatles tunes anyway?  Surely a song like, oh, “Yesterday” would have made its way to the public consciousness just the same?

Sorry, this movie is not about pondering those kinds of questions, for it’s ultimately just a silly, amusing romantic comedy.  If you drop any expectation or preconceived bias and accept “Yesterday” for what it is, you’re in for an entertaining couple of hours.

Going in, I was most concerned about whether the 16 Beatles songs you hear would be butchered in their re-execution.  Incredibly, lead actor Himesh Patel, playing the central character Jack Malik in his debut role, does quite a fine job handling lead vocals as well.  Granted, he’s singing the songs as if they’re his, and his audiences have never heard 7f98904885them before, so he isn’t trying to precisely duplicate the original recordings.  His renditions come across convincingly.

Jack quickly sees that if no one knows The Beatles’ songs except him, he can pass them off as his own compositions and make a fortune.  He plays “Yesterday” for his friends, and they compliment him for writing “the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.”  He tries “Let It Be” for his parents, who disrupt him with inane comments, and they keep thinking it’s called “Leave It Be.”  In a just-for-fun songwriting competition with Ed Sheeran, he performs “The Long and Winding Road,” leaving Sheerhan gobsmacked, adding, “Jack, you are Mozart, and I am Salieri.”

images-48Much of the humor in the film comes from Jack’s inability to remember all the lyrics.  He can’t go look them up on Google (although he tries to!), so he’s seen wracking his brain, jotting down bits and pieces on Post-It notes as the words come to him, and he even travels to Liverpool to visit Penny Lane, the Strawberry Field orphanage and Eleanor Rigby’s grave to see if that helps to jog his memory.

Then there’s the over-the-top performance by SNL’s Kate McKinnon as Debra Hammer, a stereotypically greedy, insincere, manipulative music agent urging Jack to “drink from the poisonous chalice of money and fame.”  She has the audacity to suggest changing “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude” because she thinks it will have more appeal to today’s market.  She’s so wrapped up in her own agenda that images-49she can’t see how much Jack is wrestling with the dishonesty of what he’s doing.

Beneath all this, though, is Jack’s simmering relationship with Ellie, a friend since childhood who has had a crush on him since he sang Oasis’ “Wonderwall” in a school talent show as a boy.  She supports his dreams of becoming a successful musician, managing his foundering career and giving him hope when he’s ready to give up.

It takes him a while, but eventually he sees that he can’t live with the guilt of fraudulently claiming Beatles tunes as his own.  He has nightmares about appearing on James Corden’s show and being exposed as a phony by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.  At his album release event before a throng of cheering fans, he freezes in panic, and then himesh-920x584belts out a truly terrifying rendition of “Help!”, singing, “Won’t you pleeeeease help me!!” at a breakneck tempo.

The movie’s most moving scene comes when he is sent to visit a reclusive John Lennon, living his life as a 78-year-old painter in a remote coastal village.  Lennon reminds him of the two most important things in life, and they’re not fame and fortune:  “Tell the truth to everyone, whenever you can.  And be with the one you love.”  This sound advice leads him to confess, after a performance of “All You Need is Love” before an enormous audience, that “his” songs actually belong to four guys named John, Paul, George and Ringo, and he directs his manager to download all the music for free for the world to hear.

The film ends with Jack, now a music teacher, leading a group of school kids singing “Ob-yesterday-film-2019-lily-james-himesh-patel-1600x1067la-di, Ob-la-da.”  Jack and Ellie have found happiness as Desmond and Molly Jones with a couple of kids running in the yard.

A bit too sweet for its own good?  Sure.  But hey, “Yesterday” is well worth your attention.  It’s beautifully shot, smartly scripted and sensitively acted, and it serves to remind us all, as two Liverpudlians remind Jack near the film’s end, “a world without The Beatles is one that is infinitely worse.”

Even though I, for one, knew that already.

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Here’s a Spotify playlist of selections from the “Yesterday” soundtrack: