Old dogs doing some new tricks

A number of celebrated rock musicians from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s have released substantial new albums in the 2010s — thirty, forty, even fifty years after their first albums debuted.  But radio rarely (never, really) plays great recent songs by vintage rock artists, even if there are strong tracks that many people would seriously enjoy.  That’s where Hack’s Back Pages comes in.

vinyl-record-turntable-spinningI spent many pleasurable hours in the past week or two reviewing the music found on albums released by legendary artists since 2010.   From that research, I have selected a dozen tracks to highlight here this week because I think they’re worthy of your attention.

There are those (particularly those over, say, 40 or so) that sniff derisively, “Today’s music sucks,” and they may have a point if you review only the Top 40 charts.  But I’m here to tell you there is plenty of great music being recorded and released today, not only by promising new bands but by a few of the artists from decades ago.   I think, in another day and age, these songs by icons would’ve (or could’ve) been pretty big radio hits — certainly on FM stations but maybe even the Top 40 in some instances.

Please follow along via the Spotify playlist below.

And here we go:

donaldfagensunkencondosfront“Weather in My Head,” Donald Fagen, from “Sunken Condos” (2012)

Fagen’s superb work as a co-founder of Steely Dan is well documented, but his solo LPs haven’t received the same kind of attention (except perhaps 1982’s “The Night Fly”).  In 2012, when Fagen put together the material for “Sunken Condos,” his fourth solo outing, it was no surprise he chose guitarist Jon Herington to play a key role, as he has in Steely Dan/Fagen recordings and tours since 2000.  His biting yet tasteful solo on “Weather in My Head” helped make it the highlight of the LP.  Rolling Stone ranked the album, and this song, among the year’s best.  A nice funky blues, with marvelous words that use extreme weather events — typhoons, sea-quakes, floods — to describe the emotional damage when a relationship crumbles: “They may fix the weather in the world…but what’s to be done, Lord, ’bout the weather in my head?…”

images-11“If It Wasn’t for You,” Joe Jackson, from “Fast Forward” (2015)

Jackson was a firebrand of the British punk/New Wave movement of the late 1970s, but he was always much more than that.  Classically trained and wildly eclectic in the kinds of music that interest him, he has recorded music of so many genres and styles that he is virtually impossible to categorize.  His commercial peak in the early/mid-’80s (“Steppin’ Out,” “Breaking Us in Two,” “You Can’t Get What You Want”) came and went, as he preferred to go down less popular roads.  He has returned to accessible pop several times, but radio ignored him and sales were unimpressive.  In 2015, for his “Fast Forward” LP, Jackson recorded 16 songs, four in each of four cities (New York, Berlin, Amsterdam and New Orleans), with tracks reflecting the culture and production techniques of the location.  “If It Wasn’t for You” from the New York batch is an immediately catchy tune that fits nicely alongside his earlier hits.

Robert_Plant_Lullaby_and_the_Ceaseless_Roar_coverHouse of Love,” Robert Plant, from “Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar” (2014)

Far more than his Led Zeppelin cohort Jimmy Page, Plant has maintained a relatively constant flow of new music in the 37 years since the band’s breakup.  His tenth LP, released in 2014 was the first to feature a named backup band, The Sensational Shape Shifters, led by multi-instrumentalists/songwriters Justin Adams and John Baggott.  The material they came up with shows a mutual fondness for English and Moroccan folk as well as American blues and psychedelia.  The standout track, I think is “House of Love,” which builds nicely from humble beginnings into a full production.  Plant and his band just returned last month with a new release, “Carry Fire,” much of it in the same vein.

Unknown-12Americana,” Ray Davies, from “Americana” (2016)

The proud, prolific founder and chief songwriter of The Kinks is often regarded as a quintessentially British tunesmith, but he has also professed a keen interest in American music and culture, and has lived in the U.S. (New York and New Orleans) at various times.  Three years ago, his memoirs, entitled “Americana,” focused on his love-hate relationship with the United States; two years later, he released an album by the same name, whose title track does a beautiful job of showing his awe at the breadth and beauty of this country, despite its troubles:  “I wanna make my home where the buffalo roam, in that great panorama…  In the steps of the great pioneers, over air, sea and land, still I can’t understand how I’m gonna get there from here, wherever it goes, it’s gonna take me somewhere…” 

walsh12“Analog Man,” Joe Walsh, from “Analog Man” (2012)

One of the great guitarists of rock’s glory years, Walsh has also been a creative, witty songwriter, dating back to his years with The James Gang.  He went through a rough patch in the late ’80s/early ’90s but emerged healthy when The Eagles reunited, and he remains a solid performer with the group and on his own.  “Analog Man,” his first new album in 20 years, is chock full of great tracks, but I love the title song, which whimsically captures the plight of old-schoolers who struggle to keep up with technological advances.  “I’m an analog man in a digital world” is a line that describes a lot of people in my generation, I would imagine…

thick-as-a-brick-2“Banker Bets, Banker Wins,” Ian Anderson, from “Thick As a Brick 2” (2012)

After a run of 40+ years, Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson chose to end the band and officially go solo, using a new group of supporting musicians to tackle a formidable but intriguing project:  a follow-up to the group’s #1 album from 1972, “Thick as a Brick.”  Anderson fancifully wonders whatever happened to the fictional eight-year-old boy who “wrote” the original.  What path might his life have taken?  Simple shopkeeper or greedy banker?  Charlatan evangelist or shellshocked soldier?  This rock track (which, on Spotify, includes a 1:15 intro tune called “Upper Sixth Loan Shark”) sounds most like the Tull of old, with lyrics that deftly describe the self-absorbed world of the investment class.

13849_cover“So Beautiful or So What,” Paul Simon, from “So Beautiful or So What” (2011)

Although Simon has been writing iconic songs for more than 50 years, he is far from prolific.  There were only five albums as Simon & Garfunkel, and since going solo 45 years ago, he has released only 12 studio LPs of new material.  Clearly, he makes up for in quality what he lacks in quantity, as evidenced by “So Beautiful or So What,” his 2011 effort.  Once you get caught up in the rolling, hypnotic rhythm that drives the excellent title song, you just don’t want it to end.  I remember being knocked out by an amazing live performance of the song by Simon and his band on “SNL” that year.  He has said his songwriting process always begins with a rhythm, something new or unusual that catches his attention.  Here’s proof of that.

rs-169909-largeEvery Breaking Wave,” U2, from “Songs of Innocence” (2014)

Five years in gestation due to writer’s block and group dissension about the recordings, this compelling album was finally released in 2014 to rave reviews, despite an unfortunate backlash from their marketing move to automatically download it to every iPhone, whether consumers wanted it or not.  But this is U2, who have a formidable track record, so let’s listen to the music.  It’s a fantastic LP, no doubt about that, focusing on themes of childhood, growing up in Dublin in the 1970s, using lush rock arrangements to tell their stories.  Best of the bunch is “Every Breaking Wave,” with its allusions to the need for intimacy and stability in a relentlessly challenging world:  “If you go your way and I go mine, are we so helpless against the tide, every dog on the street knows we’re in love with defeat, are we ready to be swept off our feet and stop chasing every breaking wave?…”

1200x630bb-4You and I Again,” James Taylor, from “Before This World” (2015)

Taylor seemed to run out of steam with his ho-hum 2002 release, “October Road,” which hinted that his songwriting muse had abandoned him.  Although he has maintained a presence on the road with his yearly tours, he released no new studio recordings for a dozen years…until, suddenly, “Before This World,” a welcome surprise in 2015.  SO many entertaining songs here, from the whimsy of “Angels of Fenway” to the harrowing piece “Far Afghanistan,” with Taylor’s voice never in better shape.  The refreshingly gorgeous “You and I Again” examines the rekindling of a relationship that suffered a rocky period:  “You were tending your own fire, we were biding our time, both of us waiting for the moment when our backs would come together, you and I… And so although I know we are only small, in the time we have here, this time we have it all, you and I again, this time, this time…” 

A1R4M8utp7L._SL1500_“Spiral,” Eric Clapton, from “I Still Do” (2016)

Clapton, arguably blues music’s most successful practitioner and biggest cheerleader, continues to amaze us, even in his sixth decade of making records.  “I Still Do,” his 23rd studio LP, gathers frequent collaborators Simon Climie and Andy Fairweather Low and brings back celebrated producer Glyn Johns, with whom Clapton worked on the best-selling “Slowhand” and “Backless” albums in the ’70s.  The song list is all over the map, including two numbers by his late friend and collaborator J.J. Cale, classic songs like Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and other contemporary material.  I found the best track to be an original piece called “Spiral,” a spooky, slow blues that highlights Clapton’s gruff vocals as well.

5942832f78c30.imageCarnival Begin,” Christine McVie & Lindsey Buckingham, from “Buckingham/McVie” (2017)

Most of the songs on this duet LP were supposed to be on a new Fleetwood Mac LP, but when Stevie Nicks chose to withdraw her songs from the group album to focus on her solo career, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie figured they would put out these engaging tracks as a duo in a one-off project.  These two superlative songwriters assembled a very fine record of F-Mac-like songs, each contributing their signature sounds (Buckingham’s biting guitar and angular melodies, McVie’s dulcet vocals and catchy hooks).  Most intriguing, to me, is McVie’s rather mystical “Carnival Begin,” an exploration of relationships ending and beginning anew:  “I always wondered if you ever miss me, I always thought I heard you call, I always wanted to hear your voice, summer into fall… I’ll take it all, I may lose or win, a new merry-go-round, carnival begin…”

graham-nash-this-path-tonight“Encore,” Graham Nash, from “This Path Tonight” (2016)

Nash was never a prolific writer, but he made his moments count.  Nearly every charting single of Crosby, Stills and Nash was written by Nash (“Marrakesh Express,” “Our House,” “Teach Your Children,” “Just a Song Before I Go,” “Wasted on the Way”), and his periodic solo albums have included at least four or five tracks with irresistible hooks and thought-provoking lyrics.  His 2016 LP, “This Path Tonight,” comes to grips with the recent dissolution of his 30-year marriage, but the album closer, the delicate ballad “Encore,” takes aim at estranged colleague David Crosby, whose prickly narcissism has alienated him from many old friends:  “What you gonna do when the last show is over?  Who you gonna be when the lights are fading?  Adulation is pleasing, encore, encore…”

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Honorable mention:  “Sins of My Youth,” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, from “Hypnotic Eye” (2014);  “Dark Sunglasses,” Chrissie Hyde, from “Stockholm” (2014);  “Keep Me Singing,” Van Morrison, from “Keep Me Singing” (2016);  “No, Thank You,” Don Henley, from “Cass County” (2015);  “Rocky Ground,” Bruce Springsteen, from “Wrecking Ball” (2012);  “The Open Chord,” Elton John, from “Wonderful Crazy Night” (2016);  “Ain’t It a Drag,” Jeff Lynne’s ELO, from “Alone in the Universe” (2015); “It Happened Today,” R.E.M., from “Collapse Into Now” (2011).

The legends were all there that night

I’d like to shine a light this week on a little gem of a pop culture artifact that every true rock music fan should see.  Available on DVD only since 2009, it’s considered the very first rock concert film ever made, and it’s about time more people knew about it.

As Miami Steve Van Zandt has said, “It’s the greatest rock movie you’ve never seen.”

51cR8JMSnPLIn 1964 — half a decade before the first rock festival films (“Monterey Pop” in 1968 and “Woodstock” in 1970), before “The Concert for Bangladesh” in 1972, and way before major filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme were making “The Last Waltz” (1978) and “Stop Making Sense” (1984) — there was a groundbreaking flick featuring a dozen of the hottest acts of that pre-psychedelic era, all on one stage.

It has the awkward title “The T.A.M.I. Show,” and it chronicles one remarkable concert held on October 29, 1964 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

Performing that night were the very young Rolling Stones, the irrepressible James Brown, rock’n roll pioneer Chuck Berry, California kings The Beach Boys, New York teen sensation Lesley Gore, Merseybeat stars Gerry & the Pacemakers, and Motown titans The Supremes, Smokey and the Miracles, and Marvin Gaye, among others.

Now admittedly, some people — particularly those born after, say, 1990 who are used to more modern film techniques — will probably find parts of this footage excruciatingly dated.  First of all, it was shot in black and white, and the stage sets and backdrops are

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Jan and Dean

pretty cheesy.  God knows the emcees, Jan & Dean, came across as totally hokey.  Some of the song selections might have been a little lame.  And you might find the clothes sported by the artists and the “go-go dancers” to be about as straight-laced as the “Breck girl” and pompadour hairstyles.

But hey, that was what young people were wearing in the early ’60s — surf shirts, matching tuxedos, bikinis and the like.  In almost every way, this flick is a period piece, and in that regard, it offers a broad spectrum of 1964 music and styles, from California to New York, from London to Detroit.  Viewers need to take all that into account.

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James Brown and The Famous Flames

Most important, of course, is the music.   Some, even many, of the performances captured here are eye-opening, mind-blowing, simply extraordinary.

IMG_2312Far and away the most electrifying set is by “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown and The Famous Flames.  At his prime, which might have been right around this period, there was nobody remotely like him in terms of raw energy, sexuality, tight dance moves, and the emotion he could squeeze out of each song:  “Out of Sight,” “Prisoner of Love,” “Please, Please, Please” and the stone classic “Night Train.”   He definitely left it all out there, with the all-white crowd of local teens losing its collective mind.

(Yes, it was impossible to ignore there weren’t more than a handful of black faces in the audience.  I’m not sure why that had to be the case in Santa Monica in 1964, but actually, there were precious few integrated audiences anywhere in the US back then, and wouldn’t be until near the end of the decade.)

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Marvin Gaye

The smooth, sensual Marvin Gaye gets my vote for next best act of the evening.  He had mesmerizing stage presence in his all-white tux, caressing the mike as he belted out four R&B classics:  “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Pride and Joy,” “Can I Get a Witness” and “Hitch Hike.”  He was a loyal Motown team player at that time, with a golden voice, recording whatever material Berry Gordy pushed on him (most of which was pretty great), although by the 1970s, he insisted on more control, and came up with brilliant tracks like “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me.”

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Keith and Mick

As for The Stones, it’s a total treat to see Mick Jagger and Company go through their paces as 21-year-olds, especially the now-craggy-looking Keith Richards, who appeared to be about 16 here (he was 20).  Co-founder Brian Jones was still a vibrant part of things then, and Bill Wyman was still holding down the bass lines to complement Charlie Watts’s drums.  But I have to say, they made a tactical error when they insisted on being the final act of the

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Bill Wyman and Brian Jones

night, because Brown completely upstaged them.  Remember, at that point, they hadn’t recorded “Satisfaction” or “Get Off My Cloud” or “Paint It Black” and their material was chiefly cover versions.  (Their set list:  “Around and Around,” “Off the Hook,” “Time Is On My Side,” “It’s All Over Now” and “It’s All Right.”)  Richards has said in interviews about the T.A.M.I. Show that choosing to follow Brown “was probably the biggest mistake we ever made in our careers.  But we survived,” he chuckled.

Interestingly, it should have been The Beach Boys and The Supremes (or even Lesley Gore) vying for the headliner status, since they were the ones with the multiple #1 hits on the US charts at that point.  But there’s no doubt that Brown or The Stones were the more exciting live act and would provide the better climax to the evening’s festivities.

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One of Brian Wilson’s final live shows with The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys’ footage is special because the great Brian Wilson, their genius songwriter/producer, was still performing with them, and he’s clearly the focal point.  His falsetto lead vocal on “Surfer Girl” will knock you out.  Less than two months later, Wilson retired from live performances, replaced on tour by others (including Glen Campbell for a spell).  Dennis Wilson shows a lot of pizazz on drums, and Mike Love does his predictable little dance moves, with Al Jardine and a baby-faced Carl Wilson contributing guitar parts for their four-song set of coast-to-coast hits:  “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “I Get Around,” “Surfer Girl” and “Dance, Dance, Dance.”

 

TAMI

Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross

The Supremes, of course, were in the middle of an unprecedented string of five consecutive #1 hits, rivaling The Beatles on the charts from mid-’64 to mid-’65.  The incomparable Diana Ross, with strong backing from Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, opened with two lesser hits — “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” and “Run, Run, Run” — before sending the crowd into a frenzy with “Baby Love” and “Where Did Our Love Go.”  I’m not sure if it’s endearing or just weird when a dozen teen dancers come roaring onto the stage to shake and shimmy behind the famous trio.

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Smokey Robinson (right) and The Miracles

Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Motown’s original #1 hit group, didn’t disappoint, serving up a smart set of three tunes, opening with their latest single “That’s What Love is Made Of,” followed by two of their biggest hits thus far — “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Mickey’s Monkey.”  Robinson, who wrote so many of the songs recorded by numerous Motown groups, performed passionately on lead vocals as The Miracles crooned and danced in unison beside him.

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Lesley Gore

I’m not sure why Lesley Gore was allowed to sing six numbers, more than anyone else, except to say she had a dynamite voice (no lip-synching here), and a couple of the tunes were shortened and squeezed into a mini-medley.  She represented the New York girl-group sound of the early ’60s, which may have been on its way out within a year or two, but you wouldn’t know it from this great performance.  Her songs:  “Maybe I Know,” the ahead-of-its-time “You Don’t Own Me,” “You Didn’t Look Around,” “Hey Now” and her back-to-back 1962 classics, “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry.”

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Chuck Berry, and The T.A.M.I. Dancers

Fittingly, the producers chose to open the proceedings with original rock and roller Chuck Berry, but I found it very strange that they made him share the stage with England’s pop group Gerry and The Pacemakers.  Berry kicked things off with a solid “Johnny B. Goode” and then segued into his first hit, 1955’s “Maybellene”… but suddenly in mid-song, the camera swung over to The Pacemakers doing the same song!  Their hit ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” the_tami_show_320was next, and “It’s Gonna Be Alright” … but then it was back to Berry doing “Sweet Little Sixteen”… then another Pacemakers song “How Do You Do It?” before Berry had one final shot with “Nadine (Is That You?).”  The Pacemakers got to close out this bizarre interplay with their hit “I Like It.”  There has been no explanation I could find in my research to justify this back-and-forth nonsense.

Also part of the show were lesser acts like Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas (“Bad to Me,” “Little Children”), Jan and Dean (“The Little Old Lady From Pasadena”), and The Barbarians (“Hey Little Bird”).  Suffice to say they were the filler between the quality acts.

If you look closely, you can see that the house band backing the vocalists was none other than The Wrecking Crew, L.A.’s loose assemblage of excellent session musicians who appeared anonymously on hundreds of hit records through the ’60s and ’70s.  Glen Campbell on guitar and Leon Russell on piano are among those doing their magic in the shadows.  And the dancers, choreographed by the award-winning Toni Basil, included a few future stars including actress Teri Garr.

So what does “T.A.M.I.” stand for, anyway?  It’s an acronym for the strangely named non-profit organization Teenage Awards Music International  (how’s that for garbled syntax?).  The plan was for the organization to produce a series of yearly concerts and award ceremonies for TV broadcast, and possible feature film release, with proceeds earmarked for music scholarships and other programs benefiting teenage music education.  But none of these things — except the initial 1964 concert and subsequent movie — ever materialized.  All that remains is this historical DVD with the curious title.

When the producers went looking for the acts they wanted, they naturally started with The Beatles, but they were unavailable, so manager Brian Epstein agreed to send two other acts under his purview (Gerry and The Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas).  The Stones were young and hungry and jumped at the chance.  Motown was happy to provide three major acts, and The Beach Boys were eager to be part of the California-based event.  Getting Chuck Berry brought in the early rock influence, while Lesley Gore represented the “girl group” sound.  It was a perfect storm of everything on the pop music scene at the time.

Perhaps most remarkable about the filming of this extravaganza was the use of four then-new “Electronovision” cameras that allowed for live editing on the spot, and audio that was mixed down live in the room from four-track to “glorious mono” (the preferred format of the day).  There is no unused footage, no alternate takes, and no multitrack audio to be remixed, so what you see is what actually happened, absolutely live.  With that in mind, the result is a truly astounding, high-quality concert film.

IMG_2326The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, by the way, has its own legendary status.  Opened in 1958 as a combination concert hall/convention center, it hosted the Academy Awards for several years, and was the scene of dozens of rock concerts from the mid-’60s to the mid-’80s.  Beginning with The Doors in 1967, many top artists were drawn to the venue’s great acoustics, including Creedence, BS&T, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, Van Morrison, Procol Harum, Traffic, David Bowie, Genesis, Lou Reed, Journey, Rush, Jethro Tull and The Clash.  Upstaged by newer Los Angeles venues in the ’90s, the facility is now mostly dormant, used only occasionally for film and commercial shoots.

Do yourself a favor and take this trip down proverbial memory lane.  You won’t be disappointed!