The old songs never end
Whenever I dig back into vintage albums, I almost always end up rediscovering wonderful songs I’d forgotten about. In rare instances, I even find great tunes I somehow never heard before. Then, of course, there are the excellent tracks I’ve always enjoyed but the rest of you may need to learn about.
Sone of these songs, or the artists who recorded them, remind me of specific music-loving friends and family members who played an important role in introducing them to me or sharing a deep love for their music. In this edition of Lost Classics (#22), I give credit where it’s due. I have a lot of music-loving friends, so don’t be offended if I left you out. I’ll no doubt include you in the next “lost classics” chapter.
Share the music!
“Calling Elvis,” Dire Straits, 1991
Anything by Dire Straits or from the solo records of Mark Knopfler remind me of my friend Raj Sandhu, with whom I saw a fantastic Dire Straits show in 1991 at the old Richfield Coliseum outside Cleveland, Ohio. It had been six years since their mega-platinum “Brothers in Arms” LP, and we were both thrilled when “On Every Street” was released, followed by a tour. The opening track, “Calling Elvis,” is one of our favorites. Knopfler has said the idea for the song came to him one day when he inadvertently left his phone off the hook and his brother-in-law tried repeatedly to get hold of him. Upon finally doing so, the brother-in-law noted that Mark “was harder to get hold of than Elvis!” At one point, the lyrics use Elvis song titles to creatively build a narrative about a fan who thinks Elvis is still alive: “Well, tell him I was calling just to wish him well, let me leave my number, heartbreak hotel, oh love me tender, baby dob’t be cruel, return to sender, treat me like a fool…”
“Drowned,” The Who, 1973
The Who’s magnum opus “Quadrophenia” came out in the fall of 1973 when I was a freshman at the University of Cincinnati. My friend Craig Cooper was the first to buy it, and he played it relentlessly in his dorm room, where several of us often congregated. Pete Townshend initially wrote “Drowned” as an ode to the spiritual guru Meher Baba in 1970, and it later became one of the pivotal pieces of “Quadrophenia.” Said Townshend: “When the tragic hero sings ‘Drowned,’ it’s desperate and rather nihilistic, but really, it’s a love song. God’s love is the ocean, and we are the drops of water that make it up.” Townshend invited Chris Stainton, who played piano in Joe Cocker’s band, to make a guest appearance on this track, and the intro is actually lifted from the Cocker classic “Hitchcock Railway.” In an amazing concurrence of events, the studio in which “Drowned” was recorded was flooded just after the song was completed. “It was raining so hard in Battersea, where the studio was, that water was gushing in through the walls,” said Townshend. “A glorious coincidence!”
“Old Brown Shoe,” The Beatles, 1969
The music of The Beatles reminds me of several different friends, depending on the album. “Sgt. Pepper” and “The White Album” take me back to the days when my friend Paul Vayda still lived in Cleveland before his family moved to Hamilton, Ontario. One of the last songs the band recorded and released before he moved was the single “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” an old fashioned rocker with Lennon’s controversial line, “Christ, you know it ain’t easy… They’re gonna crucify me.” We were buying only albums at that point, not singles, so George Harrison’s lively rocker “Old Brown Shoe” on the B-side escaped our attention until nearly a year later when it was included on the US compilation album “Hey Jude.” Harrison wrote the lyrics as “a study in opposites and duality.” Musically, it makes use of the new recording equipment installed at Abbey Road studios a few months earlier, which made all the instruments really pop, especially the lead guitar solo and the bass part, both played by Harrison on this track.
“Shine On,” Heartsfield, 1974
Just a few days ago, my friend Lynn Rogers Vail picked Heartsfield’s “The Wonder of It All” as one of her “10 albums that influenced me” on Facebook. I had never even heard of Heartsfield, which baffles me, because they sound like a cross between Pure Prairie League, The Eagles and The Grateful Dead, all of whom I like a lot. They released four albums in the 1973-1977 period when the country/Southern rock genre was very popular, but they apparently didn’t chart very well or I would’ve turned on to them. I spent a very pleasant couple of hours listening to Heartsfield’s music this week, and decided that I should share their music with the rest of you, too. Lynn clued me in to her favorite songs by this band, and I have to say I agree especially with her choice from “The Wonder Of It All” called “Shine On.” It starts acoustically but ramps up quickly with electric guitars and then some luscious three-part harmonies, finally settling into a full-band groove with dual lead guitars on top. Fantastic!
“Can’t Take It With You,” The Allman Brothers Band, 1979
The A-Bros, as they’re lovingly referred to by fans, had a career arc that was every bit as long and strange a trip as any other band of the last 50 years. When I hear the superb recordings of this group, I instantly see my friend Ed “Tobar” France playing air guitar as Duane Allman or Dickey Betts cranked up one of their amazing solos. Although the group’s 1969-1973 period remains their most lasting, individual tracks from later albums are well worth your time. After three years apart, The A-Bros reunited in 1979 with their “Enlightened Rogues” LP, which includes some ferocious blues and energetic country rock tunes featuring more of that great dual-guitar attack of Betts and new second guitarist Dan Toler. The instrumental “Pegasus” is incredible, and their cover of B.B. King’s “Blind Love” beats the original. But I’m also partial to the quintessential A-Bros classic groove of “Can’t Take It With You,” with a revitalized Gregg Allman nailing the vocal. Here’s a weird footnote: The song is co-written by Betts and “Miami Vice” actor Don Johnson!
“I Will Be There,” Van Morrison, 1972
I confess to having been slow on the uptake when it came to the wondrous music of Van Morrison. Sure everybody knew “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and I became familiar with radio hits like “Moondance,” “Domino” and “Wild Night.” But I didn’t fully get hip to most of his catalog until the early ’80s when my friend Mark Frank loaned me a half dozen Van LPs to peruse. I was knocked out by so many of the songs on albums like “Moondance,” “Tupelo Honey,” “Hard Nose the Highway” and “Beautiful Vision.” Morrison has dabbled in American jazz and Celtic folk, and has also shown a real flair for R&B and traditional blues. On his “St. Dominic’s Preview” album, along with an amazing Irish soul rave-up called “Jackie Wilson Said,” Van the Man gives us “I Will Be There,” a piano-based blues love song that I’ve loved from the day I first heard it. He has said he wrote this in the style of, and as a tribute to, the late great Ray Charles. I can imagine this track being covered frequently in tiny blues bars all over Chicago.
“Pretty Persuasion,” R.E.M., 1984
The pride of Athens, Georgia, R.E.M. was one of the first “alternative rock” bands to become mainstream superstars, although it took them a few years. My brother-in-law Jerry Gentile was a big fan early on and urged me to buy their second LP, “Reckoning,” and I liked the jangly guitars and Michael Stipe’s cool voice. I was particularly taken with “South Central Rain,” “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” and “Pretty Persuasion,” with a sound that recalled The Byrds and Tom Petty. Still, I didn’t pay attention to the next several albums, but thanks to my other brother-in-law John Gentile, who gave me the critically praised “Automatic For the People” album for Christmas, my appreciation for R.E.M. blossomed, and I ended up buying every album they put out from that point on. Their 15-album catalog is pretty darn fabulous, from the frenetic “Radio Free Europe” on the debut LP “Murmur” in 1982 to the sumptuous “Walk It Back” from the “Collapse Into Now” LP in 2011 that proved to be their swan song. Thanks, brothers, for taking me for a ride on the R.E.M. train!
“Talk of the Town,” The Pretenders, 1981
I didn’t immediately embrace the New Wave sound revolution of the early ’80s, but I was living in a house with a guy who was more receptive, and he would expose me to the latest LPs by great new artists like Joe Jackson, The Police and The Pretenders. My former roommate and friend Stu Van Wagenen loved all three of these acts, and if not for his influence, it might have taken me a while longer to wise up to the great talent of Chrissie Hynde. I recently read her autobiography, “Reckless,” an exhilarating read about her misadventures and victories, and it made me revisit and broaden my knowledge of the Pretenders’ repertoire. Stu has continued to make sure I was aware of newer stuff like “I’ll Stand By You” from “Last of the Independents” (1994) and the excellent live unplugged LP “The Isle of View” (1996). But there’s nothing like those first few albums, which featured tracks like the hard rocker “Message of Love” and the more seductive “Talk of the Town.” Hynde’s vocals seem to match the tough-girl sneer of her stage presence.
“Scenes From a Night’s Dream,” Genesis, 1978
I knew virtually nothing about the music recorded by the early lineup of Genesis when vocalist/frontman extraordinaire Peter Gabriel was in the fold. My first exposure came at a party in a Syracuse University dorm when I heard “Trick Of The Tail,” the 1976 LP on which drummer Phil Collins took over lead vocals. Even though I enjoyed it, I didn’t buy it, instead waiting until the next release, 1977’s “Wind and Withering,” which I found disappointing. A few years passed when my friend Barney Shirreffs admonished me for ignoring the three great Genesis albums that followed: “And Then There Were Three” (1978), “Duke” (1980) and “Abacab” (1981). As it happened, I had tickets to review an upcoming Genesis concert, so I immersed myself in these albums and came away an avid fan. I’d heard the hits (“Follow You Follow Me,” “Misunderstanding,” “No Reply At All”) but soon preferred the deep tracks featuring Tony Banks’s inventive keyboards and Collins’s powerful voice. “Scenes From a Night’s Dream” is one of my favorites.
“Remember My Name,” Toy Matinee, 1990
Some artists we learn about all on our own. In the ’80s and ’90s, I was writing concert and album reviews for Scene Magazine, an entertainment weekly in Cleveland. I’d stop by the editorial offices and riffle through the latest album releases to see if anything looked interesting. Among the ones I took home with me, simply because I liked their name, was the debut (and, as it turned out, only) LP by a band called Toy Matinee. Before I got around to listening to it, WMMS-FM in Cleveland and other album-oriented rock stations elsewhere started playing the catchy rocker “Last Plane Out,” a modest hit in late 1990. I eventually played the rest of the LP and discovered a compelling, bright pop sound as exemplified in tracks such as “The Ballad of Jenny Ledge,” “Things She Said” and especially “Remember My Name.” Toy Matinee was basically singer-guitarist Kevin Gilbert and producer-songwriter Patrick Leonard with backing session musicians, so when Gilbert wanted to tour but no one else was interested, that was all she wrote.
“Candy’s Room,” Bruce Springsteen, 1978
When I first started dating my wife Judy, we quickly bonded over a mutual love of great music, and we turned each other on to various artists the other didn’t know much about. Judy gave me an education in early Genesis while I turned her into a big Joni Mitchell fan. One artist we both thoroughly embraced was Bruce Springsteen, but even there, we had different preferences. I learned about Bruce in the summer of 1975 when I first heard “Rosalita” from “The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle.” She was most fanatical about the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album, which came out as she was graduating high school. (Obviously, we agreed fully about the magnificent “Born to Run.”) I give her credit for reviving my interest in, and revising my opinion about, “Darkness,” which I found somewhat disappointing after “Born to Run.” One of those hidden tracks I’d forgotten about was “Candy’s Room,” with its desperate lyrics and Springsteen’s wicked lead guitar passages.
“The Royal Scam,” Steely Dan, 1976
I was a huge fan of Steely Dan from the very beginning, when “Do It Again” was a hit single in late 1972, followed by “Reelin’ in the Years” in spring of 1973. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker showed a keen talent for writing catchy tunes and creative arrangements, and they had fantastic guitarists like Denny Diaz and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter in the lineup to bring the songs to life on the “Can’t Buy a Thrill” and “Countdown to Ecstasy” LPs. By the time of their third album, “Pretzel Logic,” Steely Dan was no longer a band, just Fagen & Becker and some of the best guitarists, drummers, singers and horn players in the business sitting in to play on individual tracks. That routine continued for the remainder of Steely Dan’s recorded output. In the spring of 1976, I was visiting my friend Chris Meyer at Miami University when we noticed their latest LP, “The Royal Scam,” had arrived in the record store. We spent the next 72 hours playing it over and over, and agreed one of the best tracks was the haunting title song about the homeless in New York City.