Livin’ just enough for the city

Here at Hack’s Back Pages, we’ve come up with collections of songs exploring all kinds of different geographical places.  We’ve looked at songs about different U.S. states, songs about different world cities, songs about California, songs about New York.

But we’ve so far neglected to compile a playlist of songs about U.S. cities outside of New York and California.  It’s a big wide, wonderful, diverse, amazing country, with big cities and small chandler_oleary_50states_map_1440pxtowns throughout the Midwest, the South, the Northeast, the Southwest and all parts in between.

Through the years, songwriters of rock, country, blues and pop music have often written wistful odes or bitter diatribes about their hometowns and the cities they’ve visited, grown fond of, or grown to dislike.  I’ve selected 20 songs, mostly from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, that use U.S. cities as potent subject matter in their lyrics.



“Panic in Detroit,” David Bowie, 1973

davidbowie-panic-in-detroit1Bowie said he wrote this song based on his friend Iggy Pop’s descriptions of his experiences with revolutionaries during the 1967 Detroit riots Rolling Stone called the track “a paranoid descendant of the Motor City’s earlier masterpiece, Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Nowhere to Run.'”  Sample lyrics:  “Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph, he wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone, panic in Detroit, he laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening gloom, the police had warned of repercussions…”

“Savannah Nights,” Tom Johnston, 1979

R-4262599-1535339449-7529.mpoGuitarist/singer/songwriter Johnston was the mainstay of The Doobie Brothers until ulcers forced his temporary retirement from the lineup in 1976.  He worked his way back into the business with a 1979 solo LP, “Everything You’ve Heard is True,” featuring this very Doobie-ish tune about his fond memories of Savannah, Georgia:   “He is the King of Savannah nights, the inspiration, the ladies’ delight, you could not catch him if you wanted to try tonight…”

“Allentown,” Billy Joel, 1982

billy-joel-allentown-cbs-3Allentown is one of those hardworking Pennsylvania steel towns that suffered mightily when the US steel industry took a dive in the 1960s and 1970s and never really recovered.  The folks who were born and raised there and were expected to work the mills found themselves in a dead-end existence through no real fault of their own.  Billy Joel made a hit single about it:  “So the graduations hang on the wall, but they never really helped us at all, no, they never taught us what was real, iron and coal and chromium steel, and we’re waiting here in Allentown… and it’s getting very hard to stay, and we’re living here in Allentown…”

“Sick of Seattle,” The Smithereens, 1994

71p9U3hmRJL._SX355_Grunge rock, which featured angst-ridden lyrics and punk/metal leanings, was born in the Seattle underground in the mid-’80s, and became popular in the early ’90s with Nirvana, Soundgarden and others leading the way.  The Smithereens, who hailed from New Jersey, liked grunge but found its heyday was over when they visited Seattle:   “Came here to find me a place in the sun, once was a scene, now it’s already done, thinking of leaving, it’s no longer fun in Seattle…”

“Oh Atlanta,” Bad Company, 1979

R-1660842-1381854436-6168.jpegLittle Feat has a great classic tune with the same title, but I have also always liked Bad Company’s entirely different song, a deep track from their 1979 LP “Desolation Angels.” Country artist Alison Krauss recorded a marvelous cover version in 1995.  Guitarist Mick Ralphs wrote the song in tribute to the “capital of the New South”:  “Oh Atlanta, hear me calling, I’m coming back to you one fine day, no need to worry, there ain’t no hurry, ’cause I’m on my way back to Georgia…”

“San Francisco Days,” Chris Isaak, 1993

San_Francisco_Days_-_Chris_IsaakRockabilly/roots-rock singer Isaak, born and raised in Stockton, California, is probably most widely known for his languid 1990 hit “Wicked Game” and for his dreamy voice.  His fifth LP “San Francisco Days” is full of great songs, including the title track, which pays homage to the nearby Bay City:  “I’m heading for that Golden Gate, hoping I won’t be too late to find the one that I still love, it’s you I’m dreaming of, San Francisco nights, San Francisco days, San Francisco nights…”

“Miami,” Bob Seger, 1986

220px-Bob_Seger_-_Like_a_RockSeger is a Detroit native who sympathized with the plight of refugees who are just looking for a better life.  For his popular “Like a Rock” album in the mid-’80s, he wrote “Miami,” about Cuban refugees who brave the 90-mile trip to the Florida mainland, looking to Miami just as European immigrants looked to New York City in the early 1900s:  “They felt the warm breezes blowing from off the strange new ocean, they reached the end safe, it was a new day, Miami, oh, Miami…”

“Baltimore,” Randy Newman, 1977

61jYBTlq-yL._SX355_Newman is known for writing sardonic lyrics, and his tune “Baltimore” from his successful 1977 LP “Little Criminals” got him in trouble (as did that album’s single, the anti-discriminatory “Short People”).  Said Newman at the time, “People tend to take my songs the wrong way sometimes.  Actually, I think people in Baltimore who objected to that song had a real good case, though, because I didn’t know much about it and had never been there.”  Sample lyrics:  “And they hide their faces, and they hide their eyes ’cause the city’s dyin’ and they don’t know why, oh Baltimore, man, it’s hard just to live, oh Baltimore, man, it’s hard just to live…”

“Viva Las Vegas,” Elvis Presley, 1964

R-3715837-1440593245-2766.jpegDoc Pomus and Mort Shuman teamed up to write this rollicking tune expressly for the Elvis Presley hit movie of the same name.  Presley’s recording reached #27 in April 1964, and the movie, co-starring love interest Ann-Margret, was a box office hit as well.  The lyrics celebrate Las Vegas for its fun and excitement while warning of its risk and danger:  “There’s black jack and poker and the roulette wheel, a fortune won and lost on every deal, all you need’s a strong heart and a nerve of steel, viva Las Vegas!…”

“Cleveland,” Jewel, 2001

220px-Jewel_-_This_WaySinger-songwriter Jewel was only 21 when her debut album “Pieces of You” made her a star.  Included on her third LP, “This Way,” was this deep album track in which the narrator wants to curl up with her boyfriend, but can’t because he’s on the road, this time in Cleveland:  “It’s only an inch from me to you, depending on what map you use, I wanna tell you everything, I wanna make your toes curl, you be my only boy and I’ll be your only girl, there’s not much I can say ’cause you’re in Cleveland today…”

“Kansas City,” The Beatles, 1964

220px-BeatlesforsaleOne of the first songs in the catalog of famed songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller was “Kansas City,” a great 1952 blues tune that R&B singer Wilbert Harrison took to the top of the charts in 1959.  The Beatles chose to cover it in a medley with Little Richard’s “Hey Hey Hey Hey” on their 1964 LP “Beatles For Sale.”  The lyrics are barebones simple, but the song is a keeper:  “Ah, Kansas City, gonna get my baby on time, yeah yeah, I’m goin’ to Kansas City, gonna get my baby on time, yeah yeah, it’s just a-one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine…”

“Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John, 1976

philadelphia-freedomElton was friends with tennis star Billie Jean King and wanted to write a single for her and her pro tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms.  Lyricist Bernie Taupin protested, “I can’t write a song about tennis,” and in fact, the song has nothing to do with the sport.  Although Taupin claims it isn’t about flag-waving patriotism either, its release in 1975 and subsequent rise to #1 on the charts dovetailed nicely with the Bicentennial celebrations in Philly in 1976:  “Philadelphia freedom, shine on me, I love you, shine a light through the eyes of the ones left behind, shine a light, shine a light, shine a light, won’t you shine a light, Philadelphia freedom, I love you…”

“Birmingham Blues,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1975

R-840367-1497372470-5878.jpegDaniels is a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner from Wilmington, North Carolina, and when his career took him on tour far from home, he found himself writing songs where the narrator was longing for the familiar surroundings of his Southern towns.  On his 1975 LP “Nightrider,” he recorded a kickass number dedicated to his woman back in Alabama:  “Had me a fine woman down in Birmingham town, took care of my money and she didn’t play around, all I got left now is a bad case of Birmingham blues…”

“Sweet Home Chicago,” The Blues Brothers, 1980

5353810063_cc623b2149_bRobert Johnson wrote this blues classic in 1936 about blacks fleeing the racist Delta areas for destinations with promise, like California, or Chicago.  Dozens of cover versions have played fast and loose with the lyrics, but the version I know best was recorded by John Belushi and Company for “The Blues Brothers” soundtrack LP in 1980.  Chicago sports teams have adopted the song for use at home games:  “Come on, baby, don’t you wanna go, hi-de-hey, baby, don’t you wanna go, back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago…”

“Memphis,” Johnny Rivers, 1964

R-995789-1335131030.jpegThis Chuck Berry song, first recorded by Berry in 1959 and turned into a #2 hit for Johnny Rivers in 1964, appears to be about a man longing for his love interest who he left behind in Memphis.  Closer examination reveals it’s about his six-year-old daughter Marie, who lives with her mother since a divorce split the family:  “Last time I saw Marie, she was wavin’ me goodbye, with ‘hurry-home’ drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye, but we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree, and tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee…”

“La Grange,” ZZ Top, 1973

ZZTopThe infamous “Chicken Ranch” brothel located on the outskirts of La Grange, Texas, is the subject of this minor hit for ZZ Top in 1973 (it peaked at #41), and also the hit stage play and film “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” in the early 1980s.  The track is mentioned among Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs All Time:  “Rumour spreadin’ around in that Texas town ’bout that shack outside La Grange, and you know what I’m talkin’ about, just let me know if you wanna go to that home out on the range, they gotta lotta nice girls, have mercy…”

“Tulsa Time,” Eric Clapton, 1978

81lIZIogODL._SX355_Country artist Don Williams recorded this Danny Flowers tune in 1978 and had his eighth consecutive #1 hit on the country music charts that year.  Clapton chose to record it for his “Backless” LP, and a live version released on his “Just One Night” album in 1980 became a #30 single.  It tells the tale of a musician who gives up on his Tinsel Town dreams to return to his Oklahoma roots:  “Well, there I was in Hollywood, wishin’ I was doin’ good, talkin’ on the telephone line, but they don’t need me in the movies and nobody sings my songs, guess I’m just wastin’ time, well, then I got to thinkin’, man I’m really sinkin’, and I really had a flash this time, I had no business leavin’ and nobody would be grievin’ if I went on back to Tulsa time…”

“Doraville,” Atlanta Rhythm Section, 1974

Atlanta_Rhythm_Section_1977Barry Buie wrote many of the early songs by his band Atlanta Rhythm Section, who were formed in the Georgia town of Doraville, which was semi-rural at the time but grew into a sizable suburb of Atlanta.  Many of their songs were also recorded in a small recording studio there, and although the group went on to national fame with songs like “So Into You,” “Champagne Jam” and “Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight,” it’s songs like “Doraville” that remind everybody of their hometown pride:  “Doraville, touch of country in the city, Doraville, it ain’t much, but it’s home…”

“Lodi,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969

220px-Creedence_Clearwater_Revival_-_Green_RiverOf the many great songs John Fogerty wrote for his band Creedence in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I’ve always been partial to this tune from the “Green River” album about a traveling musician whose plans didn’t work out and he found himself stuck in a podunk town in Anywhere USA.  Fogerty decided to pick on Lodi, California, a tiny railroad town not far from his own home town of El Cerrito:  “The man from the magazine said I was on my way, somewhere I lost connections, ran out of songs to play, I came into town, a one-night stand, looks like my plans fell through, oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again…”

“Atlantic City,” Bruce Springsteen, 1982

51EEhoEevQL._SY355_Among the bleak, introspective songs Springsteen wrote for what ended up comprising his “Nebraska” LP was the haunting “Atlantic City,” which explored the difficulties the Jersey boardwalk town was having with its plan to revitalize through the proliferation of gambling casinos.  Despite the song’s dark mood, the lyrics offer a hopeful note:  “Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line… Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back, put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City…”


Honorable mention:  “Gainesville,” Tom Petty, 1998; “The Boston Rag,” Steely Dan, 1973; “Galveston,” Glen Campbell, 1969; “Angel From Montgomery,” Bonnie Raitt, 1974;  “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” Warren Zevon, 1991; “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” Dionne Warwick, 1966; “Dallas,” Johnny Winter, 1973; “Okie From Muskogee,” Merle Haggard, 1969; “Nashville Cats,” The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1966; “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” Jan and Dean, 1963;  “All the Way to Reno,” R.E.M., 2001;  “Tallahassee Lassie,” Freddy Cannon, 1959; “Tucson, Arizona,” Rory Gallagher, 1973.




The drummer of a generation of hits

Arguably the greatest success story of the 1960s rock music era belonged to a man most people don’t recognize by name.

Certainly not by his given name — Harold Belsky — nor even by his professional name — Hal Blaine.

Hal-BlaineAASince his death last week at age 90, you may have learned his name by reading any of the multiple articles, in print and online, that cataloged his extraordinary accomplishments.  He has been recognized in his industry (and now, increasingly, by the public at large) as an unparalleled titan among that breed of musician that worked diligently behind the scenes, in the proverbial shadows.  In the recording studios of Los Angeles, he played the drums in thousands of recording sessions between roughly 1960 and 1980, anonymously providing the backbeat for the hits of many hundreds of popular singers.

Name a hit single from the Sixties, and it’s very likely he was working the drum kit on the recording.  The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda”?  Yep.  Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life”?  Sure.  Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”?  Check.  Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender”?  You bet.  The Mamas and The Papas’ “California Dreamin'”?  Uh-huh.  The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”?  One of his best.

It’s truly unbelievable, the pervasiveness of Blaine’s work during that period.  His skillful drum work can be heard (and, sometimes, barely heard, when called for) on records by a broad cross section of American musical artists, from The Fifth Dimension to The Byrds, from The Partridge Family to Elvis Presley, from The Grassroots to Neil Diamond, from Barbra Streisand to Jan and Dean.

It’s estimated that Blaine played on more than 6,000 songs, 150 of which became Top Ten hits on the Billboard charts, and 40 of which reached Number One.

Here’s an especially remarkable fact:  Blaine’s drums were featured on six consecutive Record of the Year Grammy winners — “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass (1966), “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra (1967), “Up, Up and Away” by The Fifth Dimension (1968), “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel (1969), “Aquarius (Let the Sunshine In)” by The Fifth Dimension (1970) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel (1971).

How did this happen?  How could one drummer end up manning the skins on so many hit records?  To comprehend this, you have to understand how the record-making process worked during that era:

An artist’s manager and/or record label rep would learn of a song, usually as a demo tape submitted by a songwriter, and wanted their artist to record it and release it.  (This often had to happen quickly, before someone else beat them to it.)  Studio time would be booked, and a producer would be hired to oversee the recording session.

The producer was usually the guy holding all the cards.  It was up to him to decide the arrangement, the tempo and, most important, the musicians to use in order to get the best recording in the most efficient use of time.  This usually meant hiring guitarists, bass players, keyboard players and drummers who were known for their ability to intuitively 0420_wrecking-crew-HalBlaine_LateSixtiesknow exactly what was called for in a given song or recording.

In Los Angeles studios between roughly 1962 and 1972, that meant the producer wanted Hal Blaine on the drums.  There was, quite simply, no question about it.  Whether you wanted a snappy 4/4-time backbeat, a syncopated jazz touch, or just some subtle brush work, there was no one easier to work with, no one better qualified.

How did Blaine feel about this?  Last year, as he was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys for his extraordinary body of work, he said, “I felt at the time as If I had fallen into a vat of chocolate.  It was a wonderful, wonderful thing to be asked to play drums for so many different singers and bands.  I was truly living my dream.”

Blaine was, by all accounts, the unofficial ringleader of an unofficial group of LA-based studio musicians who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew.  Several dozen top-notch players could justly claim informal membership in this confederation, but the core group consisted of Blaine (drums), Carol Kaye (bass), Larry Knechtel (keyboards, bass), Tommy Tedesco (guitar), Glen Campbell (guitar), Steve Douglas (sax), Earl Palmer (drums), Mike Rubini (keyboards), Joe Osborn (bass), Louie Shelton (guitar), Jim Gordon (drums), Leon Russell (keyboards), Billy Strange (guitar) and Jack Nitzsche (arranger/conductor).

There had been an older version of The Wrecking Crew in the 1940s and 1950s — a more buttoned-down group of studio musicians who liked the nickname “The First-Call Gang.”  They were, indeed, the first ones called when a top performing artist wanted to record a new song or album.  These were typically the “easy listening” singers who offered the more standard, strings-laden torch songs of those days — Vic Damone, Pattie Page, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como.

The studio pros who provided musical backing then were “the blue-blazer-and-necktie, wrecking crewby-the-book, time-clock-punching men who had cut their teeth playing on Big Band records, movie soundtracks and early TV shows,” as writer Kent Hartman put it in “The Wrecking Crew,” his authoritative 2012 book.  “They loathed everything about rock and roll.  To them, this new music was appallingly primitive, and most refused to play it.  In their minds, their careers had been built on decorum and sophistication, not on wearing T-shirts and blue jeans to work while bashing out what they felt were simplistic three-chord rhythm patterns over and over.  ‘That kind of thing is surely going to wreck the business,’ they would say.”

Blaine, known for his easygoing manner and infectious sense of humor, chuckled when he heard this. “They think we’re wrecking the industry?  Well, okay then, we’ll call ourselves The Wrecking Crew!”

They worked tirelessly, sometimes up to eight sessions a day.  They recorded movie and TV theme songs and film soundtracks, and played the music for some TV commercials as well.  Mostly, though, they recorded lots and lots of hit singles, and lesser-known album tracks, for the era’s biggest stars.

In some cases, their involvement was meant to be kept secret.  The Beach Boys, for example, had played their own instruments on their earliest records (1961-1963), which had basic, simple arrangements.  But once Brian Wilson heard what producer Phil Spector was accomplishing with studio musicians on his “Wall of Sound” recording process on tracks like The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” he wanted Beach Boys tracks to have that same degree of professionalism.  On Wilson’s Hal_Blaine_48f722b0b749dmore sophisticated compositions like “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations,” “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” he brought in Blaine and his compatriots to substitute for his Beach Boys cohorts in the studio, and the listening public was none the wiser.

“Hal Blaine was such a great musician and friend that I can’t put it into words,” Wilson said the other day in a tweet that included an old photo of him and Blaine sitting at the piano. “Hal taught me a lot, and he had so much to do with our success.  He was the greatest drummer ever.”

Blaine had wanted to be a professional drummer since he was a boy.  With every musical act that passed through his Massachusetts home town, young Hal would position himself close to the bandstand so as to watch every movement the drummer made.  These were typically Big Band drummers — Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Dave Tough — and they were his heroes, the coolest “hepcats” around.

In his late teens, Blaine learned drums in Chicago from the great Roy Knapp, who had taught Krupa and others, and in his early ’20s, Blaine played in Chicago strip clubs and with small jazz combos, eventually touring and recording with Count Basie’s outfit, Pattie Page and teen idol Tommy Sands.  Unlike his jazz drummer counterparts, Blaine took a liking to rock and roll, not only because the studio sessions proved lucrative but because he enjoyed it and understood the kind of drumming parts the producers were looking for.

Blaine’s acumen was not in showiness but in capability.  “I was never a soloist, I was an accompanist,” he told Modern Drummer magazine in 2005.  “That was my forte.  I never had Buddy Rich chops.  I never cottoned to the Ginger Baker drum solos.”

He always seemed to know what a song needed, and sometimes he stumbled on to it by happenstance.  One of his signature moments — the attention-grabbing “on the four” solo (bum-ba-bum-BOOM) that launched the 1963 Phil Spector-produced hit “Be My Baby” — halblaine550kjhredcame about when he accidentally missed a beat while the song was being recorded and improvised by only playing the beat on the fourth note.

“And I continued to do that,” Blaine recalled.  “Phil (Spector) might have said, ‘Hey, do that again.’  Somebody loved it, in any event.  It was just one of those things that sometimes happens.”

Another iconic contribution Blaine made was during the recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” in 1969.  “I was going for what I later called a ‘cannonball-like’ sound, something to bruise the song, which I felt was too sweet, too much like a lullaby. The producer, Roy Halee, heard it and had an idea.  He set me up with my kit in an empty elevator shaft.  When the music got to the ‘Lie-la-lie’ part, I hit the drums as hard as I could.”  The resulting effect was indeed like a gunshot, a cannonball blast.

By the 1970s, producers began losing some of their authority as rock bands rightly insisted that the group’s members should be the ones to play the guitar, bass, keyboard and drum parts on their records.  There would still be the prominent singers (Streisand, The Carpenters, John Denver) who needed studio musicians to provide the professional instrumental backup on their records, but by the 1980s, demand for studio musicians dwindled.  The advent of electronic drum machines and other techno options made guys like Blaine all but obsolete.

the-wrecking-crew-film-poster-images-movie-one-sheets-bHe continued to appear occasionally at symposiums and workshops, and on TV talk shows, well into his ’80s.  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 with four other Wrecking Crew partners, and he was prominently featured in the 2008 documentary “The Wrecking Crew,” directed by Denny Tedesco (son of Tommy Tedesco), and in Hartman’s 2012 book.

But I keep coming back to the head-shaking list of songs on which Blaine is listed as drummer.  “Mr. Tambourine Man” (The Byrds).  “These Boots Are Made For Walking” (Nancy Sinatra).  “Half-Breed” (Cher).  “You’re the One” (The Vogues).  “Secret Agent Man” and “Poor Side of Town” (Johnny Rivers).  “Johnny Angel” (Shelley Fabares).  “Another Saturday Night” (Sam Cooke).  “Windy” and “Along Comes Mary” (The Association).  “Wedding Bell Blues” and “One Less Bell to Answer” (The Fifth Dimension).  “River Deep, Mountain High” (Ike and Tina Turner).  “Love Will Keep Us Together” (The Captain and Tennille).  “Let’s Live for Today” (The Grassroots).  “If I Were a Carpenter” (Bobby Darin).  “MacArthur Park” (Richard Harris).  “Ventura Highway” (America).  “Dizzy” (Tommy Roe).  “Annie’s Song” (John Denver).  “This Diamond Ring” (Gary Lewis and The Playboys).  “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” (Glen Campbell).  “Kicks” (Paul Revere and The Raiders).  “The Way We Were” (Barbra Streisand).  “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” (Jan and Dean).  “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and “Top of the World” (The Carpenters).  “Monday Monday” and “I Saw Her Again” (The Mamas and The Papas).  “Everybody Loves Somebody” (Dean Martin).  “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “Song Sung Blue” (Neil Diamond).

Are you kidding me?!

Blaine himself always loved to tell the story about the day he met Bruce Gary, drummer for the late ’70s British pop band The Knack (“My Sharona”).  “He was telling me how much he loved American pop songs of the 1960s, and he had started researching who the different drummers were on the various records.  He told me he was almost disappointed when he discovered that a dozen of his favorite drummers were me!”